Labor sends a statement in Chicago

“We sent a statement,” declared Dennis Gannon, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), in the afterglow of the Feb. 27 municipal elections. And what a statement it was.

Organized labor and its community allies made history by helping elect two candidates against Democratic Party machine incumbents and forcing 12 other runoffs on April 17. Runoffs occur when no candidate cracks 50 percent.

No labor-endorsed incumbents were defeated. Aldermen Freddrenna Lyle and Ricardo Munoz, who led the fight for the big box living wage ordinance, won outright. Ald. Joe Moore was barely forced into a runoff.

This was the latest arena in an increasingly bitter clash pitting organized labor and its allies against the city’s big business, financial and real estate interests and giant transnational corporations like Wal-Mart and Target.

Not since the days of the late Mayor Harold Washington has organized labor been so active in municipal elections. It was an unprecedented step for the CFL to organize its own independent political apparatus and deny Mayor Richard M. Daley an endorsement.

The bold electoral offensive resulted from an accumulation of grievances by labor and its community allies against the Daley administration. “It’s not just big box-living wage or right-to-know [legislation for striking hotel workers]. It’s not just about the city contract where we waited 28 months and retirees didn’t get back paychecks. It’s not just about charter schools for teachers, privatization of city services or the layoffs. It’s a combination of all of that,” Gannon said.

In addition, anger has grown over downgrading affirmative action in minority contracts and hiring as well as the crisis in affordable housing caused by gentrification. Large-scale developments are occurring downtown while working-class neighborhoods are neglected.

The Chamber of Commerce and Illinois Retail Merchants Association countered labor’s plans by supporting pro-Daley candidates to guarantee that “one stop shopping” with the mayor would continue and the big box ordinance wouldn’t be reintroduced.

Big business sources lavishly funded the campaigns of friendly incumbents, including a last minute $130,000 from Wal-Mart and Target. More big corporate money was funneled to Daley, who accumulated a $5 million war chest.

Daley’s election to a fifth term was bittersweet. He won by the lowest vote of his tenure. The absence of serious competition kept the anti-Daley vote largely at home. Additionally, he lost council allies and will have to contend with a significant block of independent aldermen.

Daley was hamstrung by allegations of corruption, including the indictment and conviction of his patronage chief. This prevented him from mobilizing an army of patronage hires in support of his aldermen.

Into this vacuum stepped labor and its allies. The CFL, with the Service Employees Union (SEIU) leading the charge, targeted anti-labor incumbents. Labor poured over $2 million into the races and marshaled some 2,000 members to conduct neighborhood labor walks and phone-bank members. Top labor officers set the example by working directly in the campaigns.

In an unprecedented development, three trade unionists ran for office and made the runoffs: Leroy Jones, a shop steward with SEIU Local 73; JoAnn Thompson, a public worker and American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees member; and Toni Foulkes, a grocery store worker, United Food and Commercial Workers member and leader of ACORN. If elected April 17 they will join former Laborer Patrick Levar, who was re-elected.

The machine took a huge hit when Sandi Jackson, wife of U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., defeated Darcel Beavers and the powerful ward organization of her father, William Beavers. Also Brendan O’Reilly, a former aide to Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, defeated Burt Natarus, backed by developers. Jackson and O’Reilly were strongly supported by labor.

Daley still has the $5 million to dispense to candidates in the April 17 battle royal. But labor pledges it will match its first-round efforts to elect aldermen who will stand up for living wages, affordable housing, mass transit funding and education and oppose privatization.

jbachtell @ cpusa.org