August 16, 2022

Chicago News Cooperative | The Bottom Line: Rahm Emanuel and Unions Square Off Over Work Rules

Because of agreements between the city’s leaders and employee unions, many drivers often are required only to chauffeur other employees and equipment to work sites across Chicago. Upon arrival, the drivers then just wait while other workers complete such tasks as installing street lights or trimming trees.

“It is commonplace, if you are a resident of the city of Chicago, to see work crews on which only a couple of people are working and others appear to be standing or sitting idle,” Mr. Ferguson said last week. “The remarkable thing about this is they are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. We have basically codified wasteful overstaffing.”

As Mayor Rahm Emanuel begins to grapple with the city’s daunting financial shortfalls, he faces a thicket of longstanding labor rules that could complicate efforts to make city government operate more efficiently.

Just two months after his inauguration, Mr. Emanuel already finds himself locked in a dispute with union officials over his demand that they agree to change some workplace rules or face hundreds of layoffs.

Mr. Emanuel and his budget-cutting aides are plunging into a murky legal sphere.

Reaching a clear understanding of how city employees are supposed to earn their taxpayer-financed paychecks can be much more complicated than merely reading union contracts. The way things have been done historically carries legal weight, labor law experts say.

The new mayor’s options appear to be limited even further by the 10-year contracts that Richard M. Daley reached with dozens of city workers’ unions in 2007. Those deals promised the same conditions and annual wage increases for union members through 2017.  Still, there are clauses that seem to allow the Emanuel administration to reopen the contracts in 2012.

With a budget deficit that could exceed $700 million next year, and with personnel costs representing the vast majority of expenses, Mr. Emanuel has said everyone must make sacrifices to help balance the city’s books. He has adhered to his campaign pledge to refrain from requesting that employees take more unpaid days off to save money, as Mr. Daley pushed them to do for years.

Instead, Mr. Emanuel said last month, he will have to lay off more than 600 workers unless their unions agree to changes in work rules. Although at first city officials did not offer details, Mr. Emanuel last week described three of the nine proposals he had presented to union officials in a closed-door meeting. The mayor and his aides have not publicly revealed the other six changes or the amounts that any of the nine changes would save.

Two of those ideas would affect the city’s hoisting engineers, who operate heavy machinery and who belong to the clout-heavy International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150. The mayor suggested an end to the contractually mandated practice of paying those employees double their usual $45.10 hourly rate for overtime. Almost all other city employees are entitled to just one-and-one-half times their regular wage when they work overtime.

Mr. Emanuel also called for changes to the perk that hoisting engineers call “grease time,” a practice that guarantees a half-hour of overtime pay in each shift for maintaining the heavy equipment that union members operate.

Even before factoring in overtime, which has added tens of thousands of dollars to yearly wages, the annual pay for more than 200 hoisting engineers is at least $93,808.

Officials of Local 150 declined to answer questions about the two mayoral proposals.

The hoisting engineers’ union, which had been a major supporter of Mr. Daley, backed Gery Chico to succeed him in the election in February.

The third concept Mr. Emanuel mentioned last week would involve compelling the city’s administrative staff to work 40 hours a week instead of 35.


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