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In a letter to Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Black Caucus, demanded to know the “parameters” of the city’s ongoing negotiations with United on a new master use agreement at O’Hare. | File photos

Black Caucus draws line in sand over O’Hare wage theft claims

SHARE Black Caucus draws line in sand over O’Hare wage theft claims
SHARE Black Caucus draws line in sand over O’Hare wage theft claims

The City Council’s Black Caucus is declaring its opposition to giving United Airlines control over concessions and contracts at its O’Hare Airport terminal in retaliation for what aldermen call the airline’s indifference to allegations of wage theft at O’Hare.

In a Nov. 1 letter to Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), chairman of the Black Caucus, demanded to know the “parameters” of the city’s ongoing negotiations with United on a new master use agreement at O’Hare.

“Will it cover only the use of gates and other aviation-related facilities? Or will it also include retail opportunities including shops, newsstands, duty free, food concessions and sanitation services?” Sawyer wrote in the letter that was obtained by the Chicago Sun-Times.

Sawyer then homed in on the claims of wage theft being pushed hard by Service Employees Union Local 1, which wants to represent nonunion airport workers.

“If the airlines have taken no responsibility for the treatment of workers under their current contracts, I would hope that the Department of Aviation would not expand the number of workers under their control. Without serious and swift action to resolve these matters, I could not support an expanded agreement,” Sawyer wrote.

United spokesman Charlie Hobart was somewhat cagey when asked whether O’Hare’s flagship carrier is seeking unprecedented control over concession contracts currently the exclusive purview of City Hall.

“We’re always discussing ways to work with the city to create a state-of-the-art and modern experience for our customers in the most operationally efficient and cost-effective way,” Hobart said.

“We’ve discussed several ideas with the city, and we’re working with them and looking for opportunities to work together to create that,” he said.

Hobart denied that United has been indifferent to allegations of $1.2 million in “wage theft” from hundreds of airport employees who draw their paychecks from private contractors.

The allegations against private contractors include failing to make up the difference for tipped employees whose gratuities leave them short of the city’s minimum wage and failing to pay employees who work through their lunch breaks and before and after their regular shifts.

“These aren’t our employees. Talk to our service partners out there. We have service partners. The city uses some,” he said.

Jerry Morrison, assistant to the president of SEIU Local 1, doesn’t buy the argument that United is not in control.

“They’re employees of subcontractors, but the airlines are the ones who set the standards. The airlines have found ways in other cities to raise the standards for workers. So there’s no reason they can’t raise standards for workers in Chicago,” he said.

“We would have great concerns about both additional control and additional revenue going to the airlines when we have these outstanding issues with the workers,” Morrison said. “The airlines have to deal with the issue of wage theft, working conditions, insurance and benefits. Standards for workers have got to be brought up.”

Aviation Department spokesman Owen Kilmer would say only that lease negotiations with the airlines would likely be an “18-month process” and the terms United is seeking today “may be different” than what ends up in the agreement.

Two other sources confirmed United has raised the possibility of duplicating the model it has established at airports in Newark, New Jersey, and in Houston.

In exchange for making “significant investments” in its terminal, United gets to “operate and maintain” its own facility in those two airports.

A similar arrangement in Chicago would require United to substantially increase its rent payment to make up for concession revenue the city would lose by ceding the power to United.

It would also reopen the controversy over United’s heavy contributions to Emanuel’s re-election campaign.

In October 2014, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Emanuel had raked in more than $125,000 in campaign contributions from 51 employees of United and American Airlines as he prepared to make pivotal decisions affecting O’Hare’s two largest carriers.

After a fundraiser organized by several United Airlines executives, the Emanuel campaign deposited $72,300 from 41 individual United executives — nearly two-thirds of whom reside outside Chicago, records showed then.

At the time, Emanuel told the Sun-Times editorial board that he suspected airline executive support was tied to his leadership of the city. The mayor noted then that he had just proposed a city budget that closed a tax loophole that had been reaping airlines $17 million a year.

“If [any contribution] was to influence a decision I made, in the budget book that’s in front of you is $17 million they rely on and I shut,” Emanuel said. “I closed it in the very period of time they supported me.”

The Black Caucus has become increasingly vocal about minority contracting and wage issues.

In September, they came within one vote of blocking a $3.5 billion O’Hare Airport bond sale, delivering a powerful message about the lack of minority participation on city contracts and the gravy train of pinstripe patronage tied to city borrowings.

In October, Evans was raked over the coals on the shortage of minority contractors and employees at O’Hare and Midway.

During that hearing, Ald. John Arena (45th) held the commissioner’s feet to the fire over allegations of wage theft.

“As a city, we need to hold a moral high ground and not say, ‘We are third removed. We don’t have the authority.’ When you go back and renegotiate these contracts, know that we’re going to look at that. And you need to lead,” Arena told Evans.

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