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Rahm Emanuel sends layoff notices to city workers in union showdown

Mayor Rahm Emanuel exits press conference after announcing possibility layoffs balance 2011 city budget City Hall Friday July 15 2011

Mayor Rahm Emanuel exits a press conference after announcing the possibility of layoffs to balance the 2011 city budget at City Hall Friday, July 15, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: July 18, 2011 3:39PM

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is sending layoff notices to about 625 city of Chicago employees — and delaying 61 blocks of curb and gutter improvements and 76 blocks of sidewalk repairs — after union leaders didn’t agree to work-rule changes the mayor wants or offer alternate ways to cut costs by a deadline Friday.

“My duty as mayor is to protect our city’s taxpayers and be their voice — not to protect the city’s payroll,” Emanuel said at a City Hall news conference Friday. “No amount of smoke and mirrors can put off the tough decisions any longer.”

The layoffs — which Emanuel said will save roughly $12 million — target 75 percent cut of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s “seasonal” workforce, as well as custodians at O’Hare Airport, Midway Airports and the city’s public libraries; and workers who run the city’s water-bill call center and manage city benefits.

The transportation department layoffs will be begin immediately. As a result, city curb and gutter repairs are being put off until next year.

Custodial services, benefits management and the water-bill call center will be privatized after 30- and 45-day layoff notices go out.

Emanuel said he bent over backward to avoid laying off city employees even as he’s been touting how he’s helped bring 3,600 private-sector jobs to Chicago since he took office in May.

Friday’s layoff notices came after Emanuel eliminated unpaid furlough days for city workers, saying that cost-saving move implemented by former Mayor Richard M. Daley was a “morale-killer.” He came up with a $19 million menu of cost-saving work-rule changes and agreed to a requested two-week delay — until Friday — on those so the Chicago Federation of Labor could try to come up with alternate ways to cut back.

In the meantime, the mayor made $20 million in budget cuts that didn’t affect union jobs.

Emanuel said Friday that the revised deadline has arrived, and he can’t wait any longer to deal with the financial time bomb left behind by Daley, who balanced his final city budget with union concessions not yet negotiated. At midnight on June 30, an agreement expired that had required unionized city employees to take the equivalent of 24 unpaid furlough days a year and substitute compensatory time off for cash overtime.

“I recognize that the workers affected here are people with families to support and bills to pay, and they are going to be cast into an economy that is scarce on jobs,” Emanuel said. “But there are millions of hard-working families across the city who are trying to pay bills every day, get their kids to school every day or in camp. They’re trying to make ends meet on a paycheck that may run out by the end of the month. Those are the people [who] pay the bills [and] that expect the services.”

The decision to delay curb, gutter and sidewalk repairs did not sit well with Chicago aldermen.

“It’s already taking a long time to get projects complete. ... I have projects on my 2009 aldermanic menu that still haven’t been finished,” said Ald. Joe Moore (49th).

“We’re just gonna need to adjust the expectations of the public with respect to how fast things can get done. But, it’s tough. People are already frustrated that it’s taking too long to complete projects.”

Emanuel’s decision to pull the trigger on layoffs escalates a high-stakes standoff with organized labor that is only in Round One.

Even more concessions or layoffs will be needed to erase a $700 million operating shortfall in the city’s 2012 budget — and $500 million more when unfunded pension liabilities are factored in.

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez accused the mayor of throwing “gasoline” on a fire by pulling the trigger on layoff notices without negotiating work-rule changes with individual unions and before he sees alternative savings identified by the federation’s consultant.

That report is expected to be completed by the end of the month.

Ramirez insisted there have been “no negotiations over work-rule changes — period” with local unions whose members would be impacted by those salary-shaving changes.

“When there’s a fire, you don’t pour gasoline on it. ... We’ve shared the sacrifice. We’re willing to be partners. But, this is no way to treat a partner. ... .It’s taking a bad problem, and it’s making it worse,” Ramirez said of the layoff notices.

“These people have suffered a lot ... in this furlough arrangement. They had a previous mayor who never told ‘em, `Thank you.‚ And they have a current mayor who’s never said, ‘Thank you.’ Layoffs are matters of last resort. It’s what you have to do when all other options have been exhausted. I don’t think all other options have been exhausted.”

Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, agreed that neither the mayor nor his representatives have made any attempt to meet with his union to negotiate specific changes.

“If the mayor were serious ... he would have taken the appropriate measures to engage in such discussions. The fact that he has never done so is clear evidence that this attempt to blame union work rules for the city’s massive deficit is public relations gimmickry,” Bayer said a statement.

He added, “We are surprised and disappointed at Mayor Emanuel’s scattershot approach to the city’s budget shortfall. We are particularly disappointed that most of his bullets are aimed at frontline employees who do the real work of city government.”

Other union sources called the mayor’s decision “premature,” a “mistake” and a scare tactic that would alienate rank-and-file union members who took a 10 percent pay cut each of the last two years.

Two weeks ago, the Chicago Federation of Labor said it had hired a consultant to scour the city budget to pinpoint alternative savings. The federation said it needed more time to finish that report.

Emanuel granted the extension, setting a new deadline — of Friday.

Sources said the coalition of union leaders affiliated with the CFL is expected to meet Monday to review the recommendations, followed by a meeting with city officials.

The mayor said he remains open to budget-cutting ideas.

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