Union’s $1 million commitment to Garcia highlights labor divisions in mayor’s race

The pledge from Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers would increase U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia’s mayoral campaign fund from $609,000 to about $1.6 million.

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U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.) takes a selfie Nov. 10 with a supporter after announcing his candidacy for mayor of Chicago at Navy Pier.

U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia (D-Ill.) takes a selfie with a supporter after announcing his candidacy for mayor of Chicago at Navy Pier on Nov. 10.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

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A powerful construction union has made a $1 million commitment to mayoral challenger Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, nearly tripling Garcia’s campaign war chest and underscoring deep divisions within the labor movement.

That pledge, from Local 150 of the International Union of Operating Engineers, would increase Garcia’s campaign fund from $609,000 to about $1.6 million. It is motivated, in part, by what union spokesman Ed Maher calls the “lawlessness” in Chicago.

“The violence, the shootings, theft, crime in different areas of the city that didn’t ever used to see this kind of thing. This overall perception of this city — with residents, with folks across the state and across the country — that Chicago has turned into the Wild West,” said Maher. Among the union’s members are 325 city employees.

“Between the reality of crime and the perception of safety in the city, private sector development has really dried up,” said Maher. “A couple of years ago, we had 60 tower cranes. We were No. 1 in the country. Take a look in the Loop right now. You can see the difference.”

Local 150 has a notoriously outspoken president in Jim Sweeney — and a track record for putting its money where Sweeney’s mouth is.

In the 2011 mayoral race, Local 150 endorsed Gery Chico, with Sweeney denouncing Rahm Emanuel, the eventual winner, as a Wall Street “Judas” with “bags of silver” who sold out union workers when he helped muscle the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress.

Mayor Richard M. Daley denounced the remark as an antisemitic “disgrace.” In the 2019 mayoral race, Local 150 urged its members to vote against Daley’s brother, former U.S. Commerce Secretary Bill Daley, who missed the runoff, finishing third behind Lori Lightfoot and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

More recently, Local 150 donated $1 million to Kari Steele’s campaign for Cook County assessor — but incumbent Fritz Kaegi breezed to reelection.

Maher acknowledged Local 150 has talked to Garcia about the union’s support for a stalled ordinance — opposed by at least 11 other unions — that would require a crane operator’s license for any equipment able to lift over 1,000 pounds. The existing threshold is 2,000 pounds.

But he categorically denied the union’s $1 million pledge to Garcia was predicated on any commitment to support the crane ordinance if Garcia is elected mayor. A senior adviser to Garcia’s mayoral campaign also denied any quid pro quo.

“The operating engineers see what other people are seeing. That is that Congressman Garcia is gonna be the next mayor of Chicago. That’s why they’re in early. That’s why other unions are very excited,” said Manny Diaz, a senior adviser to the Garcia campaign.

Veteran political strategist Victor Reyes, a former Garcia rival who now supports the congressman, called Local 150’s $1 million commitment to Garcia’s mayoral campaign a potential “game-changer.”

Reyes said there had been doubts about Garcia’s ability to replace the labor support, foot soldiers and formidable contributions he lost to County Commissioner Brandon Johnson — from the Chicago Teachers Union, SEIU Local 73 and SEIU Healthcare.

“The key for first-tier candidates is to have the resources to get their message out. And Chuy got started late. There had been a question as to whether Chuy would be able to raise the money. But I think that’s been answered,” Reyes said.

“Local 150 is a very politically savvy union. They don’t make choices like this lightly. The amount of money that they’re pledging is unusual. Having financial commitments from these strong unions — because business hasn’t stepped in yet in any major way with anybody — guarantees that a candidate will be able to get their message out. It also sends a signal to other trade unions that aren’t obligated to Lightfoot or to others that Chuy can win this election,” said Reyes.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot has been endorsed by seven unions representing postal workers; bricklayers and craftworkers; plumbers; theatrical stage employees; ironworkers; roofers; and waterproofers and carpenters.

During an endorsement session Monday before the board of the Chicago Federation of Labor, Lightfoot touted her track record of having raised the minimum hourly wage to $15, championed pandemic protections and predictable work schedules and guaranteed employees at O’Hare Airport higher wages and the right to organize without interference.

The mayor also touted the 3,000 construction jobs and 3,000 permanent jobs that will be created by Bally’s $1.7 billion plan to build a permanent casino in River West, as well as the job-creating potential of her five-year, $3.7 billion capital plan.

“I am proud of my record of solidarity with the labor movement, and I’m ready to put it up against any candidate,” the mayor was quoted as saying in a statement.

Just this week, the mayor received two contributions from labor groups: $150,000 from the Carpentry Advancement PAC, and $25,000 from the Laborers District Council PAC.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter acknowledged the federation has not made a mayoral endorsement in “at least 12 years, but probably going back longer than that.”

That’s because the labor movement is so divided, and a federation endorsement requires a “super-majority,” Reiter said.

Pressed on whether he expects the federation to take another pass — at least until the runoff — Reiter said: “We represent 300 unions. I’m not good at handicapping this stuff because you don’t know how that’s gonna fall. … I would say that there are a number of candidates in this race who have been allies with us. … I’m not looking to single anybody out ahead of our process next week.”

Even if the federation punts, there are plenty of unions under and outside its umbrella whose support remains up for grabs.

The Fraternal Order of Police, whose fiery president has been at loggerheads with Lightfoot, is almost certain to support former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who served as an unpaid adviser to the FOP’s negotiating team.

The Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2 gave Lightfoot a pivotal endorsement during the 2019 mayoral runoff. But President Jim Tracy has acknowledged he and Lightfoot are “miles apart” on a long-term contract, in part over Tracy’s demand to maintain a minimum staffing rule requiring at least five employees for every piece of fire apparatus.

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