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Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: Watch Chicago for signs of public-worker union strength

Published: Thursday, Sep. 13, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:13 pm

Watch Chicago. A strike by teachers there demonstrates public sector unions' struggle to find their footing in an era when even their friends are turning on them.

"I don't think it's hard to see footprints" between the Windy City and events elsewhere, said Bob Bruno, a labor expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. "Writ large, this is another of these stories about collective bargaining in the public sector under siege. It's been unfolding since 2010."

About 26,000 Chicago teachers went on strike this week over everything from pay and how much student test scores should count toward teachers' evaluations to training and facility maintenance. It's the union's first walkout in 25 years.

The strike displaced 350,000 students and risks a backlash against teachers who – like firefighters and police officers – usually enjoy positive PR.

More broadly, Chicago highlights a split between unions and Democrats that are traditionally allied. In this case, it's Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel – President Barack Obama's former chief of staff – vs. the city teachers union.

Other high-profile labor fights have involved Democrats such as New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed seeking to cut public pensions. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union organizer, has pushed for city layoffs and retirement reductions.

Locally, Democratic Mayor Kevin Johnson's nonprofit runs a Sacramento charter school with nonunion staff.

Then there's California's top Democrat, Gov. Jerry Brown. While wringing pay concessions from state employees, he backed legislation to trim state and local public pensions. The Democrat-led Legislature sent it to him on a combined 104-10 vote, despite loud union protests that the bill scapegoats their members and imposes terms that should have been bargained.

Skeptics say the union hollering aims to burnish Brown's cost-cutter credentials ahead of the Nov. 6 vote on his tax plan. Maybe, but what does that say? At the very least it means the unions understand they're the archvillains of public policy theater. If their outrage is sincere, then they got rolled.

"Fiscal crises have become a rationale for friends to eat their own," Bruno said.

You'd be hard-pressed to find a more pro-labor town than Chicago, but the union-on-Democrat-on-union feast there has begun. California is widely regarded as a pro-labor state, but you have to wonder if the dinner bell could ring here someday.

Sound far-fetched? Wisconsin gave birth to government unions 60 years ago, but today those organizations' bargaining power is virtually gone. Brown, who pushed to organize California farmworkers, on Wednesday signed a pension overhaul more sweeping than anything done by his predecessor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.

So watch Chicago. If a powerful union loses there, unions can lose anywhere.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at


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