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Brown: Pritzker tries to deflate rat with union support

J.B. Pritzker last week accepted the endorsement of a group of labor unions. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

Just six months ago, workers at PECO Pallet in Hegewisch brought out the giant inflatable rat to draw attention to their frustrations in negotiating their first union contract with an ownership group led by billionaire venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker.

On Wednesday, a group of 14 other unions made an exceptionally early leap into the 2018 governor’s race by endorsing the very same Pritzker for the Democratic nomination, lauding him for his commitment to working people.

These are not necessarily conflicting facts, but they do highlight the complications of an ultra-wealthy businessman trying to launch a political career on the Democratic side of the ledger.

For Pritzker, who is trying to build early momentum in the multi-candidate Democratic field with a likely goal of convincing opponent Chris Kennedy to back out, the union support is key to knocking down criticism that he’s just another rich guy.

But it’s just as plain that it’s Pritzker’s vast wealth — and his stated willingness to invest it toward vanquishing Gov. Bruce Rauner and in support of other Democrats — that makes his candidacy so attractive to party leaders working behind the scenes to help launch his campaign.

OPINION

Most of the unions announcing their support for Pritzker were from the construction and building trades. They included Operating Engineers Locals 150 and 399, Carpenters Regional Council, Laborers District Council and Ironworkers District Council. Catching my eye was an endorsement from Sheet Metal Workers Local 73, a union long associated with the Daley family.

Others see their common thread as unions allied with Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

Missing from Pritzker’s endorsement list was the Teamsters Joint Council.

It was Teamsters Local 743 that organized a group of 50 workers at PECO Pallet’s depot at 2924 E. 126th St., where the company repairs its trademark red shipping pallets and returns them to duty.

Employees voted to join Local 743 last June, but negotiations with company management on a contract were “very slow” with PECO bringing in a “tough, anti-union law firm” to handle bargaining, said Local 743 Vice President Catharine Schutzius.

Around the time they brought out the inflatable rat, employees also sent a personal letter to Pritzker, asking why they were having problems.

It had the intended effect.

Schutzius said Pritzker quickly responded with a conciliatory letter apologizing for their difficulties and stating his support for unions.

“After that they started to agree to our positions,” she said. “I would say his involvement was productive for us.”

Schutzius said PECO agreed to “very reasonable” non-economic terms for a first-time contract, but said the workers had to compromise on their money demands.

Union members ratified their new contract on March 7, which a cynic might point out is around the time Pritzker would have been nailing down loose ends in preparation for his campaign announcement.

I asked Schutzius if she saw any connection.

“That’s a question for him,” she said. “I just wanted a contract.”

I’ll say this much for Pritzker. At least he can point to an Illinois manufacturing business that he claims as his own, unlike Gov. Bruce Rauner who acts like he wouldn’t waste his money in this state.

Pritzker also has received criticism, mostly from the Rauner-financed Illinois Republican Party, for his family’s once contentious relationship with the hotel employees union, UNITE HERE, over labor issues at Hyatt Hotels.

The hotel company is a major source of the family fortune, and Pritzker still has significant holdings, but he argues, persuasively, that he’s never been involved in any level of leadership at the company, choosing to go his own way in business.

UNITE HERE, which once tried to block his sister Penny Pritzker’s nomination as Commerce Secretary, later made peace with the Pritzkers and did not respond to my inquiries Wednesday.

Democrats may have more to sort out on the union subject, but in a general election with anti-union Rauner, there’s nothing to discuss.

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