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Brown: Emanuel’s commercial strikes raw nerve with some unions

Updated: May 14, 2011 4:57AM

At first blush, a new Rahm Emanuel campaign commercial promising an administration in which “everybody that works for the city government knows that they’re actually a public servant” might not strike you as particularly controversial.

But it has struck a raw nerve with many leaders in Chicago’s labor community, who see a grave insult in its lecturing tone, especially coming on the heels of other Emanuel campaign positions considered antagonistic to unions.

“Somehow Chicago employees have become the demons in this election,” Jim Sweeney, president of Operating Engineers Local 150, told union members Monday at an endorsement rally for Gery Chico.

“It’s a travesty,” thundered Sweeney to the raucous applause of the pro-Chico group gathered in the union hall of Painters District Council No. 14.

Sweeney’s comments followed statements released Friday by leaders of the Fraternal Order of Police, Chicago Fire Fighters Union and AFSCME Council 31, calling on Emanuel to withdraw the “offensive” commercial and apologize. Both the FOP and firefighters previously had announced their support for Chico, while AFSCME has not made an endorsement and is expected to sit out this election.

Obviously, it comes as no surprise that Chico’s labor supporters would be on the alert for provocations that would help energize their members. What stands out is that Emanuel appears to have willingly supplied the provocation in his own bid to capture the votes of those with anti-public employee sentiments.

In Chicago elections, being on the side of “working men and women” has always meant being on the side of the unions, with no real differentiation between public and private sector employees. But Emanuel seems to be making a distinction as he tries to find the support that will put him past the 50 percent mark on Feb. 22 and avoid a run-off election.

Republicans for Rahm, perhaps?

In case you haven’t seen it or paid close attention, here’s the complete wording of the commercial narrated by Emanuel:

“City government is not an employment agency. It is delivering a service to the residents and the taxpayers of the city. I want that mind-set to be different. We’re going to deliver a service to the taxpayers. We’re going to give them the best price for what they pay for, whether that’s protecting a street, cleaning a street, plowing a street. And that means making sure that everybody that works for the city government knows that they’re actually a public servant representing and helping the people that pay them.”

Unless you’re a city worker or family member, you’re probably not going to find those words too offensive, except perhaps for those who recall how Emanuel used that employment agency to his benefit in his original election to Congress.

It’s not as if Emanuel and organized labor have totally cast each other adrift. He’s been endorsed by the Teamsters Joint Council No. 25, as well as the Plumbers, Bricklayers and Ironworkers unions.

In addition to those I’ve already mentioned, Chico added endorsements Monday from the Laborers, Operating Engineers, Electrical Workers, Sheet Metal Workers, Roofers and a different Iron Workers local.

The Service Employees International Union, probably the most politically aggressive union in Illinois elections, is expected to remain neutral in the mayor’s race. All the mayoral candidates are still waiting to see what the Chicago Teachers Union is going to do.

Emanuel would certainly seem to have taken himself out of the running for that endorsement by saying he supports legislation that would take away the right of teachers to strike.

He also has alarmed unions by conveying his willingness to consider reducing pension benefits for existing city employees as part of a larger plan to restore the financial health of the city’s severely underfunded pension plans.

I use the word conveyed, because I have never seen Emanuel forthrightly state his intentions in this regard, despite having seen the question put to him many times in many forums. He always reverts to talking points that never directly answer the question. He has promised a more detailed financial plan before the election that would answer this question and others, possibly as early as today.

Emanuel knew how this commercial would be received in the union halls, and he put it on the air anyway. That’s something I never would have expected in a Chicago mayor’s race.

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