Opinion: Unions Shun Emanuel's Progressive Challengers

A bit of a dust-up is brewing inside one of the city’s biggest unions over a $250,000 donation to Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, one of Rahm Emanuel’s strongest challengers in the upcoming mayoral election.

It seems the donation from SEIU Healthcare, one of a number of Service Employees International Union locals that represents nursing home and medical workers, oposes a recent internal union decision to remain “neutral” in the mayoral contest. As a result, SEIU Healthcare’s backing of Garcia has placed it in “direct violation” of the constitution and bylaws of the state council, according to SEIU state president Tom Balanoff, and will be “addressed through SEIU's official internal processes.”

Some political observers believe the larger organization’s decision to remain neutral is a veiled attempt to support Emanuel, or at least not antagonize him politically. However, the conflict has gone so far as to raise questions over whether the SEIU state council should be disbanded, a move that would likely weaken the effectiveness of the union over the long term.

While a power struggle inside one union over a relatively small political donation may not seem to matter much in the big picture, the SEIU conflict opens a window into the role unions currently play in the race between Emanuel and his progressive challengers, including Garcia and 2nd Ward Alderman Bob Fioretti.

Simply put, by refusing to offer anything less than clear and public support for a progressive challenger—including providing the funding necessary for any challenger to mount a serious political campaign—unions such as SEIU and others are effectively banking that both Emanuel will be re-elected and the potential for millions of dollars in city contracts will stay on the table.

For decades, unions in big northern industrial cities like Chicago could be counted on to support Democratic politicians and their election campaigns, both with their dollars and their votes.

Beyond fighting for a bigger slice of corporate profits when contracts were negotiated, the reason for such support was simple, and more strategic: Democrats, more than Republicans, told voters they supported progressive policies and programs that benefited working class families and communities.

Whether or not Democrats fulfilled those promises is beside the point. For the most part, unions supported Democrats because that’s what they believed in. And saw in Democrats the best chance to turn those beliefs into reality.

Today, however, the battle over who supports progressive policies in cities like Chicago isn’t between Democrats and Republicans, but instead between elected Democratic officeholders and ad hoc coalitions of more politically left, “progressive” politicians and activist groups operating mostly outside the existing power structures.

That fight plays out politically in Chicago as Emanuel supports polices seen as benefitting wealthier and more elite constituencies while at the same time shutting down public schools, closing mental health clinics and failing to effectively address chronic crime—all issues near and dear to those Chicagoans still struggling to get ahead.

At the same time, challengers such as Fioretti and Garcia have been vocal in their opposition, often standing on the front lines at events and protests designed to call attention to how Emanuel’s actions hurt working class and more disadvantaged communities.

So, what are unions as a whole in Chicago doing as the mayor’s race heats up? By and large, what they’re not doing is supporting Emanuel’s progressive challengers.

Outside of SEIU Healthcare’s commitment to go against the grain and support Garcia, along with a few other token sums brought in by both campaigns, unions so far have either shrugged their shoulders, stayed on the sidelines or openly supported Emanuel with large campaign donations.

The Chicago Tribune reports that last week alone, Emanuel received $400,000 from three donors, with $300,000 of that coming from a pair of unions. Back in July, Emanuel got $25,000 from SEIU Local 73, and regularly receives checks totaling tens of thousands of dollars from plumbers, electrical workers and other union groups.

Before SEIU Healthcare stepped in, Garcia had raised roughly $227,000 since he got into the race—hardly enough to counter Emanuel’s $10 million campaign war chest. For his part, Fioretti is focusing on collecting $25, $50 and $100 contributions from regular citizens, while raising roughly $300,000 since he announced in September.

For as long as anyone can remember, Chicago has been painted as both a hard-working, blue collar sort of place as well as a liberal, even progressive stronghold. And, for the most part, unions at least publicly said they supported candidates ready to fight for not only better jobs and a living wage, but also build strong communities, protect working families and ensure a more equitable distribution of economic resources.

While Rahm has moved left politically in recent weeks in an effort to shore up his reelection chances—including hijacking a grassroots movement for a higher minimum wage—from a traditional working class and union perspective there should be little doubt over which candidates represent at least the promise of change, and which represent the status quo.

However, judging by who they’re opening their checkbooks for, it appears most of the big name unions in Chicago have already made a decision in the 2015 Chicago mayor’s race.

And that decision is they like things exactly as they are. 

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