Unions Throw Weight into New Chicago City Council

Published July 1, 2007

Union-backed candidates won five seats on the Chicago City Council in the April run-off election, and local unions vowed to press their agenda there.

Unions had targeted seven incumbents for defeat in retaliation for their votes to uphold a mayoral veto of an ordinance that would have required high-value retailers such as Wal-Mart to pay $13 an hour in wages and health benefits.

Several other longtime council members had to work unusually hard for reelection against union-backed opponents.

The Chicago City Council consists of 50 aldermen, one representing each city ward. When no candidate receives at least 50 percent of the vote in a field of three or more candidates, the top two finishers face off in a runoff.

Veto Stirred Unions

Against the wishes of Mayor Richard M. Daley (D), the city council in July 2006 voted 35-14 in favor of the wage and benefits ordinance. Daley issued his veto September 11 and said in his veto statement, “I understand and share a desire to ensure that everyone who works in the city of Chicago earns a decent wage. But I do not believe that this ordinance, well intentioned as it may be, would achieve that end. Rather, I believe it would drive jobs and businesses from our city, penalizing neighborhoods that need additional economic activity the most.”

It was the first veto in Daley’s 17 years as mayor. Two days later the City Council sustained the veto, falling three votes short of the minimum needed to override it.

Union groups had strongly supported the ordinance and began organizing opposition to selected aldermen who stood with Daley.

At a news conference immediately after the election, Daley said the vote to sustain his veto of the ordinance was not the main issue.

“The people spoke, and there are other issues,” Daley told reporters. “No one [group] gets all the glory, and if you think so, you are mistaken.”

Alderman Joe Moore (D), a favorite of labor and original sponsor of the “big-box” ordinance, survived his runoff election against Chamber of Commerce-backed candidate Don Gordon. Moore also sponsored the highly controversial foie gras ban now in effect in all Chicago restaurants.

Leader Makes Promises, Threats

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staffed phone banks and went door-to-door in Chicago neighborhoods to work for their chosen candidates.

Union-backed winners included a bakery employee at a Chicago Jewel grocery store and member of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union; a former American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees member and recent director of a community development corporation; and the wife of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Chicago).

Union officials said they plan to use the election to resurrect the minimum wage issue and other union-backed initiatives.

“This isn’t a one-time deal,” said Dennis Gannon, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor. “We’re going to be involved in aldermanic politics forever and ever. We’re not going to walk away from our friends. We’re not going to forget our enemies.”

John W. Skorburg ([email protected]) is a visiting lecturer in economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago and associate editor of Budget & Tax News.