Chicago union may shift political winds

One of the nation's largest unions is starting to wield its clout in Chicago. Earlier this month, the union won the right to represent about 7,300 white-collar employees of the city of Chicago.

The victory of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees - or AFSCME - has national and local implications.

Nationally, it is another sign of the growing power of public-employee unions , observers say, at a time when other unions have been losing membership. Chicago is the last large Northern city to grant its city workers collective-bargaining rights.

''The public-employee unions, as a general rule, have had a higher growth rate,'' says Stan Rosen, a professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois. ''They've become a much more potent political force.''

AFSCME, for example, is the largest union within the AFL-CIO.

Its rise in Chicago also signals a shift.

In the 1960s and '70s, while municipal employees around the country were being organized, Chicago managed to buck the trend.

The local Democratic Party machine has long been able to coopt any push to organize city workers, says William J. Grimshaw, associate professor of political science at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

A public-employee union would have threatened the politicians' patronage system, he says, since it could break the relationship by which people got city jobs in return for helping ''machine politicians'' get elected.

But in recent years, Professor Grimshaw argues, the push for unionizing Chicago's public employees has gained great momentum. Even the machine's colossus, former Mayor Richard J. Daley, had to give in and allow the city's teachers to organize several years ago.

Last year the state passed a law allowing public-employee collective bargaining to take effect this July. And, in a controversial move, Chicago Mayor Harold Washington set up five citywide bargaining units and allowed the approximately 10,000 workers to vote in June on whether they wanted a union and, if so, which one. AFSCME, an early backer in Mr. Washington's election campaign, was the only union to get enough votes to get on those ballots. It won the right to represent 7,300 of the 8,900 workers who voted.

''There's this big pent-up demand for representation,'' says Paul Booth, the union's Illinois area director. Some employees ''have waited 19 or 20 years.''

Observers agree the right to collective bargaining will change the way the city does business. But they are not sure how much of a change it means.

''It probably means less than it appears to,'' Mr. Booth says. ''It's undeniable that a collective-bargaining agreement will take away the hammer that's always been held over the heads of municipal employees.''

But ''my instinct is that (the hammer's) value was vastly oversold.''

The move is significant because it shifts workers' loyalties away from machine politicians, Professor Grimshaw adds. But court decisions in recent years already had helped dissociate politics from hiring and firing decisions. And machine politicians have many other ways of distributing patronage, he says.

One of Grimshaw's concerns is that AFSCME will be so concerned about proving itself to its new members that it will be too tough at the bargaining table and not take cognizance of the city's financial plight.

According to Booth, the union is a tough bargainer but is always ready to hear another side.

If the history of other cities is any example, there is no relationship between unionization and the cost of services per capita, says Terry Nichols Clark of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago and co-author of a new book on financial strain in American cities.

In unionized cities, employees generally receive better pay but there are fewer of them per capita, he says.

But the situation is more complicated in Chicago, he says.

The city traditionally has paid high wages because several unions were compensated according to prevailing wage rates locally, Mr. Clark says. This may lead to unjustified expectations about future increases.

And there are racial overtones.

Many black mayors in other cities have added more jobs, albeit lower-paying, to employ more minority workers rather than to keep city rolls low and wages high, Clark says. And, since Mayor Washington, a black, is opposed by a majority block of the City Council, it is possible both sides will try to curry favor with the emerging union.

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