They're beginning to call it "the city that used to work." The Midwest's urban colossus, which under the reign of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley became known as "the city that works," is trying to work its way out of a bitter firemen's strike, which was preceded by an equally bitter teachers' walkout, which followed on the heels of a disruptive transit workers' strike.
Longtime observers say change has finally caught up with Chicago. Most big cities in the United States, they note, reached this point much earlier than Dick Daley's town.
"We had the last of the big city bosses, and now we're experiencing the same thing other cities faced when they lost their bosses," observes William J. Adleman, professor of labor and industrial relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle.
Milton Rakove, one of Mr. Adleman's colleagues, agrees: "In other major cities where the political organization has declined, the unions and the city bureaucracy have moved in to fill the vacuum."
Mayor Daley's sure-handed, behind-the-scenes manipulation of unions and other groups in Chicago, it is recalled, worked well for many years. But present Mayor Jane Byrne, the experts say, has two problems, one a product of the times and one of her own making: renewed public-employee union militancy, and a pugnacious approach to negotiations that has led to the belief she would like to "break" the unions.
Beyond the possibility of power struggles, Professor Adleman adds that after years of agreement-by-handshake labor relations between the city and its employees -- usually on a quid-pro-quo basis -- the municipal unions are maturing.
"Something is coming of age. Chicago employees are seeking democracy in the workplace," he says.
"Daley was soft spoken, at least in public. He would gather the various groups into his office and listen as they presented their requests in the presence of everyone else. . . . After everyone had finished, he'd say something like, I'll take all this into careful consideration. But you realize that i can't recognize one group over another. I have to be fair.' And when budget time came, there was always something extra for these groups -- but never in a written contract," says Professor Adleman.
Despite Mr. Daley's pro-labor reputation, he never threw his clout behind collective bargaining laws for city employees. As a result, "now the firemen are the militants," says labor relations specialist Adleman.
And then there is the Jane Byrne style of politics. "She's a confrontation politician," Mr. Rakove says. "If she attacks you and you back off, she goes after you all the more. If you fight back, she backs off."
That pugnacious approach to politics was strengthened this week by the fact that the firefighters strike was illegal under Illinois law, which does not allow public employees to strike.
"Byrne remembers the CTA [Chicago Transit Authority] stike and the fact that she had the public's support," says former city alderman Richard Simpson.
Thus, armed with a back-to-work court order and the editorial opinion of the city's two major daily newspapers, observers say, she clearly felt she had the upper hand.
Ironically, the firefighters union was the first labor organization to support Mrs. Byrne in her bid for mayor last year, breaking with the rest of the Chicago labor groups in doing so. That support was the result of a Byrne promise of a written contract for the firefighters.
After assuming office, the mayor established a commission to draft a collective bargaining ordinance for the city, the passage of which she had made a prerequisite to contracts.
The measure was introduced to the City council earlier this year. But, according to Martin Oberman, one of the sponsors of teh measure, the ordinance has been languishing in committee ever since.
"The real problem that cuased this crisis is the lack of a collective bargaining law," says Mr. Adleman. "Wihtout it, if you are militant enough and you feel you have something to win, you'll strike -- even if it is illegal."
The firefighters' position hardened because of what they saw as mounting evidence that the mayor was out to break the union: her efforts to recruit replacements for striking firemen, her statement that no striking fireman would ever again work for the city, and the fines against union leaders.
As of Feb. 21 the two sides were at least talking again, and the firefighters were returning to work. Mayor Byrne also agreed to grant amnesty to striking firemen.
In exchange, the firemen were not to take any reprisals against those who chose to remain on the job during the walkout.