Chicago Unions Flex Political Muscle

Article excerpt

FRUSTRATED WITH CITY hall's tilt to a business elite, Chicago's labor unions decided to send Mayor Richard M. Daley a message: The "city that works" doesn't work for working families. In the February and April elections, the labor movement broke with the city's fabled but feeble Democratic machine, and helped oust key Daley allies and elect seven new members to the 50-seat city council.

Despite scandals engulfing his top aides, the mayor easily won his sixth term in February against weak opponents. But the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL)-for decades a pillar of the city's machine politics-did not endorse Daley (although the building trades did). Instead, unions spent roughly $3 million and fielded a political operation stronger, than Daley's that backed challengers to the mayor's council allies.

They targeted aldermen who had opposed labor objectives, such as a living wage for "big box" retail workers. Although the council passed the ordinance last year, several aldermen later switched votes, dooming the effort to override Daley's veto. In 2004 the council had also split over Wal-Mart's request, supported by Daley, to build two stores in Chicago, one of which was narrowly approved.

In the council debates about Wal-Mart and the living wage standard, black council members split into a pro-labor faction and a faction that attacked unions as racist enemies of the black community. Black council members targeted by labor in this year's elections continued their race-baiting attacks, even though the most politically active unions, such as the Service Employees (SEIU) and the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), have a majority black membership in Chicago.

Most unions regarded the battle over the big box ordinance as a symptom of the new class-based divide in Chicago politics, but not the crux of their dispute with Daley. "It became symbolic of the city's relationship to the labor movement," says John Cameron, political director for AFSCME District Council 31, "to the extent that it refocused city politics around class, wages and jobs instead of race and ethnicity issues, which have always been the historic conversation, or 'independent' versus 'machine' politics, when independent didn't necessarily mean prolabor. For the first time I can remember, we had a city election about class."

"The press wants to make it about big box," says SEIU State Political Director Jerry Morrison, "but this is about a larger agenda, about SEIU and the rest of the labor movement building independent political power. …