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Union representing snow plow, garbage truck drivers sets strike vote for Sunday

A snowplow makes its way down Wacker Drive

Sun-Times file photo

As if the Deep Freeze isn’t enough of a slap in the face, how about this worry for winter-weary Chicagoans? A strike with the potential to paralyze city snow removal, garbage pick-ups and pothole repairs.

Teamsters Local 700 has scheduled a “contract meeting and possible strike vote” for 10 a.m. Sunday to protest the union’s displeasure with contracts talks with the city to replace a 10-year agreement that expired six months ago.

Local 700 represents 2,032 city employees, the biggest chunk of the city’s unionized workforce outside police officers and firefighters.

Members of Teamsters Local 700 drive garbage trucks and snowplows. They clear runways and taxiways at O’Hare and Midway Airports.

In addition to “motor truck drivers” in the city Departments of Streets and Sanitation and Transportation, the union represents garage attendants who fuel and maintain city vehicles and attendant cashiers at O’Hare and Midway parking garages and lots.

“It would be devastating if we went on strike,” said a union member, who agreed to speak only anonymously because of the ongoing contract talks.

“The city wouldn’t be able to get to water main breaks because you need to take a truck.”

Becky Strzechowski, president of Teamsters Local 700, said the union has three bargaining sessions scheduled the rest of this week that will likely determine whether a strike can be averted.

“Local 700 has also invited all of our [city] members to a meeting at the end of the week and we have informed them that there may be a strike authorization vote at this meeting,” Strzechowski was quoted as saying in an emailed statement.

“A strike authorization vote does not mean we are going on strike, and the need for the vote will depend on the results of the subsequent negotiation sessions.”

Streets and Sanitation spokesperson Sara McGann had no immediate comment on what, if any, contingency plan the city has in place in the event snowplow and garbage truck drivers walk off the job.

Mayoral spokesman Matt McGrath said negotiations “continue to move forward in a respectful and productive manner” and the city “remains optimistic” that a strike can be avoided.

Other City Hall sources noted that there is a multi-step process that must be followed before a strike and that process is “nowhere near exhausted.”

Strzechowski is a protégé of former Teamsters boss John Coli Sr.

A former key ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Gov. Bruce Rauner, Coli Sr. was indicted last summer for allegedly extorting $100,000 from Cinespace Studios Chicago, the city’s largest TV and film production studio.

Coli Sr. is also facing scrutiny over union deals that have funneled millions of dollars to his son’s law firm, according to records obtained by the Sun-Times.

During the 2011 mayoral campaign, Coli Sr. provided early and pivotal support for Emanuel while most other union leaders either took a pass or endorsed vanquished mayoral challenger Gery Chico.

Coli Sr. was subsequently instrumental in helping the mayor deliver two rounds of work-rule changes that changed the economic landscape at McCormick Place and made Chicago more competitive against hard-charging convention cities like Las Vegas, Orlando and Atlanta.

At the time, Coli Sr. said his members “gave ’til it hurt” after receiving a guarantee that “robust audits” would be conducted to verify that labor savings are passed on to exhibitors and not used to pad profits for show managers.

Strzechowski was unseated after just two days as Coli’s replacement as the leader of the joint council for all of the union’s locals in the Chicago area.

The decade-long contract that expired June 30 guaranteed city tradespeople the prevailing wage paid to their counterparts in private industry.

Employees in “non-prevailing wage rate classifications” received a compounded 26 percent pay raise over 10 years, plus supplemental “reporting pay, call-in pay and emergency call pay,” among other extras.

The contract also includes “break-in rates” that allow the city to pay “new career service and seasonal and pool motor truck drivers” at a rate equal to “80 percent of the prevailing wage for the first year of employment and 90 percent for the second year.”

Former Mayor Richard M. Daley has been widely criticized for signing off on the agreement to guarantee labor peace through the 2016 Summer Olympic Games that ultimately went to Rio de Janeiro.

“This tradition is extremely costly because it pays city trades people for a full work-week at the highest rate paid to similar trades people in private practice,” Inspector General Joe Ferguson wrote last spring.

“Because public sector tradesmen, even those paid by the hour, receive a guaranteed annual income, it is arguably unnecessary to treat them the same as their private sector counterparts who generally lack such income security for the purpose of setting hourly wages…The parties should consider making all wages and salaries subject to predetermined scheduled increases.”

At the time, Ferguson urged Emanuel to shorten future contracts and consider including a “mandatory mid-term re-opener” that would be triggered in the event of a “fiscal emergency” or whenever the city’s operating revenues drop below a “certain negotiated percentage.”

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez has accused Ferguson of painting a distorted picture of the contract and its prevailing wage provisions.

“The rates are the same. But what he doesn’t get into is that the benefits are not the same. It’s significantly less that the city pays for health insurance, pensions and so forth than the guys on the outside,” Ramirez said on the day the inspector general released his report.

Ramirez, chairman of the labor-heavy investor group that recently purchased the Sun-Times, argued that the long-term agreement “benefited the city tremendously,” with “millions upon millions” saved on health care alone.