Chicago's unions after the 'Big Box' fight and the aldermanic elections of 2007... Taking a dive for Daley or gaining strength against him?

By the time the “new” Chicago City Council met in early May, the dominent narrative about the recent Chicago elections (which extended from the February City Council and mayoral election through the April 17 runoffs for several City Council seats) was that Chicago’s labor unions had “stood up” to Mayor Richard M. Daley and his lackies on the 50-member Chicago City Council.

While there was a little bit of truth to the tale, there was more fiction than non fiction in it when viewed a bit more skeptically. Despite the fact that the city’s unions spent more than $4 million and deployed thoiusands of workers on the streets for the February and April votes, there was never a real challenge to the core union busting policies of the Daley administration. While a great deal was made about the unions’ support for the “Big Box Living Wage” ordinance, nothing was said or done during the entire election cycle about the biggest problem that has faced the unions for more than ten years in Chicago: the policy of every branch of city and county government to privatize as much as possible out of public services.

As a result, while aldermanic candidates were arguing about Wal-Mart, nobody was talking about the fact that the Daley people were preparing to privatize Midway Airport, had already privatized the Chicago Skyway, and were privatizing dozens of other smaller public services while the election debates were at their most heated.

How was it that “Big Box” jobs that were just arriving in the city were that important to the unions, while the union wage jobs that were alr`eady in the city and county were not important?

That question was never answered because from the preliminaries through the two elections, it was never asked, either by the majjority of people in Chicago’s media or by the leaders of the major unions themselves.

Massive privatization — Playing both ends against themiddle?

Since the mid-1990s, one of the most distinct features of the Daley administration has been its Republican drive to privatize as many public services in Chicago as possible. At Substance press time, the newspapers were reporting that parking rates at the newly privatized underground garages downtown were being raised in a significant way. Outsiders parking in the Loop or north of the Chicago River now face parking charges of as much as $28 per day.

But the recently privatized parking is just the latest in a long series of privatization moves by the Daley administration. Beginning in 1995 under Paul Vallas, the Chicago Board of Education privatized custodial and lunchroom services in many of the city’s public schools. Within two years, a Substance study showed that the costs of the services had increased, while the quality had decreased. In virtually every area of city services that has been privatized since, the same pattern has played out: costs increase; services decline.

The most dramatic recent example of this has taken place in the computer services at the Chicago Board of Education. Once done by employees with the special skills and knowledge to handle the complexities of both employee and student record keeping, the software systems used by CPS have been privatized and outsourced over the past ten years at a cost of more than a quarter billion dollars. The beneficiaries of these contracts have ranged from giants like Oracle and PeopleSoft to local entrepreneurs with little history in the field but insiders’ ability to get subcontracts.

Systems that were once secure and functional have become insecure and dysfunctional over the years the systems have been privatized since the Daley administration took over the schools in 1995.

The largest privatization currently in the works that involved CPS, however, is Midway Airport. Midway Airport was once CPS propperty. The Daley administration took the land over with glib assurances that CPS shouldn’t be in the real estate business. Now Daley is trying to completely privatize Midway, with no benefits accruing to the children in whose name the land at Midway was being held in trust. Instead, the benefits of the Midway privatization will go to the corporations that get the deals.

Although the ‘Big Box Living Wage’ ordinance that was fought out by the city’s unions last summer and into September was important to working people, privatization has cost more Chicago working people their standards of living (and their families’ futures) over the past 12 years than would have been gained by winning on ‘Big Box.’

Was the unions’ failure to mention privatization an oversight, or deliberate?

Most analysts believe it was deliberate. The unions had the opportunity to support Dorothy Brown in the mayoral election, instead abandoning her candidacy (despite her good record on labor issues as Clerk of the Court), in effect supporting Daley. (Doc Walls’s candidacy was always in play to split the vote that would have gone to Brown).

Similarly, the expensive debacle that resulted form many of the ward fights was in part the result of having an incomplete program to present to the voters. When all was said and done, the unions’ main slogan for many of their aldermanic candidates — “It’s time for a change” — was not enough.

One of the many features of the aldermanic races was that the unions spent enormous amounts of money — often on slickly printed mass mailings — without building a political base in each ward. 


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