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Government by sound bite

“This is about sound bites, not good public policy,” AFSCME’s Henry Bayer tells David Moberg at Working In These Times, discussing Mayor Emanuel’s campaign against city workers.

A couple other things it’s not about: actually negotiating with unions over work rule issues, and actually collaborating with city workers on increasing efficiency.

What it does seem to be about, besides bashing unions, is generating headlines; that’s the area where Mayor Emanuel has proven himself particularly adept in his first months in office.

The headlines don’t always correspond to reality.  Take Emanuel’s vaunted ideas for “reforming outdate and inefficient work rules.”  These were issued in a press release but never presented to city unions.

Most of them involve contractual matters.  There’s only one way to address such items:  provide the unions with written proposals, and sit down and negotiate.

That never happened.  The ideas were shown to CFL’s Jorge Ramirez and Chicago Building Trades Council’s Tom Villanova in a meeting with Emanuel last month, but they weren’t even given a copy to take with them.  (They’re not in a position to negotiate, in any case – only the actual unions are.)

The first time AFSCME heard from the city was  an after-hours phone call in the middle of last week – a couple days before the mayor’s big press conference — when they were told they had 48 hours to respond to his proposals, Anders Lindall tells Newstips.  “We asked, what proposals? They said, the ones you’ve been reading in the papers.”

The very first meeting with city unions came Monday morning — three days after Emanuel announced layoffs, claiming the unions had missed his “deadline.”

Chicago’s city workers have not been oblivious to the city’s financial situation.  Most of them (not including AFSCME members) have been working with a pay freeze and furlough days amounting to a 10 percent wage cut for a couple of years.

And the CFL is preparing a report encompassing front-line city workers’ ideas about how to increase efficiency.  It’s likely to be a lot more serious than the mayor’s proposals, some of which seem to be for effect, and some of which don’t make sense at all.

For effect:  Emanuel proclaims that city workers should be paid time-and-a-half for overtime, not double time.  But the vast majority already are.  Only a small bargaining unit of a couple hundred workers gets double time.

A headscratcher:  require city workers to put in 40 hours rather than 35.  (City workers currently work from 9 to 5 with an hour off, unpaid, for lunch.)  As Lindall points out, it’s not clear how this saves money, even if you manage to get folks to come in at 8 or stay till 6 without paying them more; you’re still paying them the same, and saving nothing.

Unless you follow this up with layoffs – but Emanuel presented the work rule changes as a way to avoid layoffs.

It’s also not clear, as Moberg points out, how the privatization schemes Emanuel announced Friday will save money.

“I think he wants to put unions on the defensive,” Bayer tells Moberg.   (Moberg himself comments that, rather than working on real fixes for the city’s problems, “Emanuel seems more interested in bashing workers.”)

It may be working.  “If you stop someone on the street and ask them what’s the cause of the city’s budget crisis, they’re liable to say it’s that work rules are unreasonable and unions refuse to negotiate,” Lindall said.  Which simply isn’t true.

But it’s working as a p.r. campaign.  It’s doing very little to solve the city’s problems.  And it’s setting up a confrontation with unions which are inclined to collaborate, and which are in a position to help.

You’ll be forgiven if you’ve started to suspect that Emanuel views the city’s crisis as an grand opportunity to weaken our unions.

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Category: city budget, labor

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