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Labor chief breaks with Emanuel over O’Hare janitors

At City Hall news conference Wednesday Chicago FederatiLabor President Jorge Ramirez accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel hurting middle-class workers contract thwill

At a City Hall news conference Wednesday, Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez accused Mayor Rahm Emanuel of hurting middle-class workers in a contract that will replace O’Hare janitors with lower-paid, non-union janitors. | John H. White

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Updated: January 14, 2013 7:19AM

Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez — who has forged a close working relationship with Mayor Rahm Emanuel — broke with the mayor on Wednesday over a $99 million O’Hare Airport janitorial contract that threatens to put 350 union custodians out of work.

Describing his relationship with the mayor as “schizophrenic,” Ramirez demanded that Emanuel re-bid the contract with United Maintenance and approve a “responsible bidders” ordinance that has languished in a City Council committee.

During a City Hall news conference, Ramirez made no mention of allegations that United Maintenance owner Rick Simon was the longtime business partner of a man with ties to organized crime.

Ramirez said it was not a factor in his break with the mayor — even as other union leaders in attendance denounced United Maintenance as a “mobbed-up” company.

Instead, Ramirez accused the mayor of placing middle-class workers “under assault” in a “race to the bottom” that will replace the O’Hare janitors with lower-paid, non-union janitors.

Ramirez was asked whether he’s concerned that his break with the mayor will damage a relationship that’s sorely needed to solve the city’s pension crisis.

“The relationship with the mayor is, in some respects, schizophrenic. There are some issues where we have disagreement,” he said.

“This is almost the same question you asked me when the [teachers] went on strike. Our responsibility was to stay with those workers and it wasn’t a tough decision to make. We fight for workers and we fight for the middle class. That’s what we do. That’s a hill that we’re supposed to die on. That’s something I’m happy and glad to do every day.”

Ramirez said he gave the mayor a heads-up about his plans to stand with the fired O’Hare janitors and Emanuel didn’t budge.

According to Ramirez, Emanuel reiterated that United Maintenance underbid its competitors after a fair competition and that the contract would stand.

Did Emanuel feel betrayed?

“Why would he? I represent workers. I’ve never hid from that. . . . When workers are in harm’s way, it’s my duty to help,” Ramirez said.

What now? Is an employee slowdown a possibility?

“I can’t rule out anything. . . . We have three days left” until the O’Hare janitors are sent packing, he said.

United Maintenance responded to the latest broadside by once again accusing the Service Employees International Union of engaging in a “smear campaign and personal attacks.”

The company said it has offered jobs to nearly 400 of the 1,000 people who’ve applied for O’Hare janitors’ jobs, 100 of them current workers.

“We are proud to have earned the city’s confidence to do this work in a better, more efficient manner that will save the city approximately $7 million,” the company said in a statement.

Ramirez took a pass on weighing in on the mayor’s race but has since forged a surprisingly close bond with the mayor after Ramirez’s firm but classy conduct during an early dispute over Emanuel’s failed demand for work rule changes.

Ramirez stuck to his guns, prompting Emanuel to pull the trigger on hundreds of layoffs. But, Ramirez subsequently embraced managed competition between city employees and private contractors and forged an agreement with the mayor on a plan to raise monthly health insurance premiums by $50 for city employees who fail to participate in a “wellness program” to manage chronic health problems. He also worked with the mayor on McCormick Place reforms.

“He is somebody I reach out to, talk to and frequently seek his counsel and opinion — even on topics outside of management-labor issues. I have a lot of respect for his opinions and also his approach,” the mayor told the Chicago Sun-Times earlier this year.

“We have a lot of very good product because of a mutual cooperation that can benefit the city as a whole, taxpayers and his members. . . . You come away either impressed [or discouraged], and I am very impressed with him.”

Emanuel took the break with his closest labor ally in stride. The mayor said he had lunch with Ramirez earlier this week and accompanied the Ramirez family to Mercy Homes on Tuesday night.

“We have a disagreement on this issue, and that’s OK. I know with Jorge and I know this very well — we can have our differences without actually thinking that they have any other meaning [and] without being difficult with each other. I respect Jorge tremendously,” the mayor said.

Emanuel also fired back at aldermen who have branded him a hypocrite for championing the middle class at the national level, but giving them the shaft locally by signing a contract that gives the ax to O’Hare janitors.

“I have never ever lost my fight on behalf of working families,” the mayor said, pointing to his fight for college scholarships and the earned income tax credit, just to name a few.

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