In Chicago’s Mayoral Runoff, It’s a Question of Which Union Wins

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In Chicago’s upcoming mayoral race, the question is not whether organized labor will win, but rather which public sector union walks away with bragging rights. In the April 4 runoff, Chicago voters will choose between former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas, who has the backing of the Fraternal Order of Police, and Brandon Johnson, who has the backing of the Chicago Teachers Unions. This in a runoff to replace incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who lost her bid to remain in office in part because she ran afoul of both unions.

The Chicago Teachers Union has garnered most of the attention for its role in ousting Lightfoot and its aggressive support for Johnson, which has left even some liberals unsettled. But the FOP is backing Vallas. Police reform has been a major issues in the city and Vallas is running on a pro-cop public safety agenda that means hiring a lot more people in uniforms. That will make the police union even stronger.

This is the potential danger of public sector unions. The unions may gain leverage over the elected officials, their members’ supposed bosses, giving them sway over contract negotiations that their private sector counterparts can only dream of. There’s only so much money in the public treasury however. Eventually the unions begin fighting amongst each other over who gets priority in public funding. Education and public safety are two of the main things any city should provide its residents but shouldn’t the decisions be made by people who aren’t beholden to ones providing the services?

Teachers unions have been major players in city politics for years. Rahm Emanuel, who served as major from 2011-19, repeatedly clashed with the CTU over pay class size and school closures. Lightfoot was elected in 2019 without the backing of the teachers union but nevertheless promised them pay raises, just not as much as the union wanted. Once in office, Lightfoot said she was constrained by budgetary reality. “The fact is, there is no more money,” she said at the end of 2019. Lightfoot alleged that the union was “moving the goalposts” with its demands and fumed “What they believe in is exercising raw political power.”

Then the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the mayor and the unions were at odds over school openings as well as other pandemic-related issues. Lightfoot alleged CTU engaged in an illegal strike when it advised its members to stay home and filed an unfair labor practices complaint against the union.

At the same time Lightfoot clashed with the police unions, blaming them for the lack of reforms in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the Black Lives Matter protests. “We have had to take them to arbitration to win very modest reforms, and that’s a shame of the history of collective bargaining where there hasn’t been an emphasis on reform and accountability,” she said. Lightfoot ran on defunding the police, but ended up reversing herself once in office and crime rates went up. This was not enough to repair her relations with the union. Nor was the Chicago public going to forget that the person who had initially run against the police presided over a period of rising crime, with rates rising as high as 35%.

Vallas, should he win, will be able to honestly say he was on the cops’ side from the start. He promises to repurpose $100 million the Chicago Transit Authority funding currently used for private security to instead create a new police transit division “that will allow for both uniformed and undercover officers to patrol CTA platforms and trains.” Overall, he plans to hire 1,600 more cops and back aggressive enforcement. “There are not enough police cars to respond to 911 priority calls. The officers we do have are demoralized and handcuffed. There is no incentive to engage in proactive policing,” he said.

Brandon Johnson is an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union and has vowed to continue to work on CTU’s behalf should he win the runoff. “Schools communities need direct investment, guarantees of staffing and program offerings,” he has pledged. “And the mayor of Chicago has an obligation to be actively fighting in partnership for the revenue required to fulfill those basic needs for every school in the city, not just some.”

His plan is to scrap the city’s formula of basing spending on the number of students because that “disadvantages” the schools. Where will the extra money come from? Non-city residents. Johnson vows to lobby the governor and Illinois legislature for additional stat6e funding.  The Illinois Policy Institute reported that 95% of his campaign funding came from 15 unions, with CTU leading them. “Eighty percent of all teacher union dues don’t go to s— but politics,” noted Ja’Mal Green, a former candidate in the mayoral who’s backing Vallas.

The ostensible purpose of a public sector union is to protect and advocate for its members and professions like education and law enforcement do deserve advocates. Chicago shows how that advocacy can morph into a struggle for control of the government itself. Lost in the struggle is the fact that public servants are supposed to be just that. They should work for the people, not vice-versa.