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Rahm Emanuel’s go-to guy on labor: Leave ‘no footprints’

James Franczek chief labor negotiator for City Hall Chicago Public Schools Chicago Park District City Colleges McPier his loop office

James Franczek chief labor negotiator for City Hall, Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Park District, City Colleges and McPier in his loop office, Wednesday, October 3, 2012. l John H. White~Sun-Times

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James Franczek is the chief labor lawyer for City Hall, the city’s public schools, the parks system, City Colleges and the city-state agency that runs Navy Pier and McCormick Place — units of government that collectively have paid his firm, Franczek Radelet, $16.47 million since Jan. 1, 2005, records show. Here’s a breakdown:

◆ Chicago Public Schools — $6.74 million

◆ City of Chicago — $5.10 million

◆ Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority — $2.41 million

◆ City Colleges — $1.20 million

◆ Chicago Park District — $1.01 million

Updated: November 9, 2012 6:10AM

A s one of the key people Mayor Rahm Emanuel turns to in many of his toughest spots, James Franczek played a major role in the deal that ended the first Chicago teachers strike in 25 years.

Franczek’s work in winning concessions from labor unions at McCormick Place was instrumental in the decision to keep two major trade shows in Chicago.

Now, he has a central role for City Hall in the ongoing negotiations with the police and firefighters unions for new contracts.

Emanuel booted out and replaced many other top advisers to former Mayor Richard M. Daley. But he kept Franczek, who finds himself pushing to roll back many of the improved job benefits for unionized employees that he helped establish at Daley’s behest.

Franczek is the chief labor lawyer for the Emanuel administration, the Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Park District, the City Colleges and the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority, the agency better known as McPier that operates the McCormick Place convention center and Navy Pier.

As of the end of June — months before the teachers’ contract negotiations ended — the school system had paid Franczek’s firm more than $6.7 million since the beginning of 2005, records show.

Over the same period, City Hall has paid the firm more than $5.1 million, with Franczek billing $295 an hour for his services.

In all, City Hall, the schools, the parks, the City Colleges and McPier have paid him and his firm nearly $16.5 million since 2005.

So how come more people don’t know him?

“My role is not to leave any footprints in the sand, all right?” Franczek says in his 34th-floor office on South Wacker Drive. “My role is to carry out the mission, the vision of the leaders I work for — Mayor Emanuel and, before him, Mayor Daley. I’m not an independent policy-maker. I’m an implementer of policy.”

Franczek, 65, has been the point man for the city school system in labor talks since 1994. The following year, Daley hired his firm — Franczek Radelet — to represent City Hall, too.

In March, the Emanuel administration extended his firm’s deal, specifying that Franczek Radelet will represent City Hall in talks with unions representing the city’s office workers, firefighters and police officers, as well as in such critical legislative matters as employee pensions.

Keeping Franczek was an easy decision, says Emanuel’s former deputy mayor, Mark Angelson.

“Jim Franczek is, by far, the best management-side labor lawyer I have met or worked with in my life,” says Angelson, who was a corporate CEO before his stint at City Hall.

Gery Chico, a Chicago school board president under Daley, says he “came to rely upon his counsel very heavily.”

“He is a problem solver,” Chico says. “He is not one of those ideologues.”

On the other side of the negotiating table, Karen Lewis, the fiery Chicago Teachers Union president, praises Franczek for his vast experience and says she felt he respected the collective-bargaining process.

“He is friggin’ brilliant for the management side,” says Lewis.

Franczek began to practice government labor law in the suburbs. Things sometimes grew heated. Once, in the 1980s, he says, a Chicago Heights police officer pulled a gun on him during negotiations.

Franczek usually prefers to laugh off the hard feelings his work often generates. His office is adorned with a photo of a man waving a “Franczek Sucks” sign. “That’s one of my buddies in the police union,” he jokes.

He says he appreciates the importance of compensation and benefits to public employees and retired public workers. Still, he predicts “watershed change in the schools, as well as city government,” under Emanuel.

“The guy has got enormous energy and enormous leadership and the will to make changes on things that are extremely difficult and extremely sensitive,” Franczek says of the mayor.

The son of immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, Franczek grew up in Harvey and attended the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago’s law school. He and his wife live in Hyde Park and also own homes in Longboat Key, Fla. (appraised value: $1.29 million), and near the Indiana Dunes ($651,300).

A spokesman of the city Law Department says Franczek and his firm “are paid at a competitive rate and are used only on an as-needed basis.”

Franczek says his experience and relationships with labor leaders mean his firm’s work for government, though costly, is a good deal for taxpayers: “The bang for the city buck is unequaled.”

Contributing: Art Golab

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