City drivers get a new contract in Chicago

January 22, 2018

Joe Andrews reports on a contract for city workers represented by the Teamsters.

AFTER MONTHS of negotiations and a scheduled strike vote, Chicago snowplow drivers and garbage truck drivers voted January 14 to ratify a tentative contract agreement with the city.

Teamsters Local 700, with a total membership of 10,000 public-sector workers in Illinois, represents the over 2,000 snowplow and garbage truck drivers who clear Chicago streets and lots, but also the runways and taxiways at O'Hare and Midway airports, as well as vehicle fueling and maintenance attendants, and airport parking garage and lot attendants.

The local's contract with the city expired in June 2017.

In a January 7 meeting some described as the largest of its kind in decades, Local 700 members turned out to the Teamster City auditorium on Chicago's Near West Side for a planned vote to authorize a strike. At that meeting, union officials announced that there would be no strike vote, because they had reached a tentative agreement with the city late the night before.

A week later, just under half of members came out to vote on the contract--with 544 voting for radification and 449 against. Despite the low turnout, the close vote authorizing the contract signals dissatisfaction among members.

Chicago public workers gather for a union meeting on contract negotiations
Chicago public workers gather for a union meeting on contract negotiations (Teamsters Local 700)

The ratified contract agreement will now go before the City Council. If approved, it will have a retroactive start date of July 31, 2017.

"NEGOTIATIONS WERE long and difficult," said Teamsters Local 700 President Becky Strzechowski on January 7. "We believe that this agreement addresses important issues of health and safety, critical training, wages and the promise of a career path to full-time, family-sustaining jobs in the City of Chicago."

According to an official statement released January 15, the newly ratified five-year contract includes the following provisions: More than 500 pool drivers will become full-time career service drivers; drivers who worked three months in 2012-13 will receive up to a $2,000 payment within 75 days, pursuant to a long disputed grievance settlement; hourly wages will increase each year for all members, and starting wages will increase for garage attendants and booters; Teamsters will get time-and-a-half pay for sixth-day service and double-time pay for seventh-day service; the city will provide increased training and safety equipment for all members; subcontracting will be restricted; and both parents will get paid parental leave.

As this article was being written, there were no details about several key provision in the last contract that were important to the union, including a guarantee that Local 700 members will receive the prevailing wage paid to their private-sector counterparts.

In the last contract, workers in "non-prevailing wage classifications" received a compounded 26 percent pay increase over 10 years as well as supplemental reporting pay, call-in pay and emergency call pay.

"Break-in rates," which allowed the city to pay new career service and seasonal and pool motor truck drivers "80 percent of the prevailing wage for the first year of employment and 90 percent for the second year" to "new career service and seasonal and pool motor truck drivers" were also included in the old contract.

LOCAL 700's contract is among several contracts covering tens of thousands of city workers that expired last summer.

Two-thirds of these contracts, including Local 700's, took effect 10 years ago, when Mayor Richard M. Daley signed off on them in order to stave off labor resistance and potential strikes through 2016, which at the time was intended to be the year Chicago would host the Summer Olympic Games.

Chicago ultimately lost the Olympics bid to Rio de Janeiro, but the decade-long contracts still stood.

Today, Daley's successor, Rahm Emanuel, wants to settle these contracts in the hopes of guaranteeing labor peace ahead of the 2019 mayoral election. But more broadly, Chicago officials see these contracts as part of their long-term goal of cutting city spending, at the expense of city workers' wages and working conditions.

In a May 2017 report, Emanuel's City Inspector General Joe Ferguson went after the prevailing wage rule, writing, "This tradition is extremely costly because it pays city tradespeople for a full workweek at the highest rate paid to similar trades people in private practice." The report continues:

Because public-sector tradesmen, even those paid by the hour, receive a guaranteed annual income, it is arguably unnecessary to treat them the same as their private-sector counterparts who generally lack such income security for the purpose of setting hourly wages...The parties should consider making all wages and salaries subject to predetermined scheduled increases.

But Chicago Federation of Labor President Jorge Ramirez called Ferguson out on his deceptive claims, responding to the inspector general's report: "The rates are the same. But what he [Ferguson] doesn't get into is that the benefits are not the same. It's significantly less that the city pays for health insurance, pensions and so forth than the guys on the outside."

Ramirez went on to say that the old 10-year contract "benefited the city tremendously," and the city saved "millions upon millions" on health care benefits alone.

In other words, city officials went out of their way to attempt justifying the lesser deal that would later be proposed to Local 700 during these most recent negotiations--even if it means distorting the details of the old contract in an official report, published with the city's seal on the front page.

IN THEIR fight for a fair contract, Local 700 members aren't just up against the city of Chicago, which will do everything it can to squeeze city workers, but also union officials who have a history of corruption and backroom deal-making with Chicago politicians.

Becky Strzechowski has been Local 700 president since 2012 and came up under her notorious predecessor and mentor John Coli Sr.

As head of Illinois Joint Council 25, Coli created Local 700 in 2010, making it one of the Teamsters' largest public-sector locals, by merging Local 726 (mostly Chicago city employees) and the corrections and law enforcement units of Local 714. Strzechowski was Coli's pick to head Local 700.

Coli also selected Strzechowski to take his place as head of Illinois Joint Council 25 last year, but she was replaced after news that Coli was under indictment for charges of taking $100,000 in employer payoffs.

Coli allegedly extorted money from the city's largest TV and film production studio, Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. He is also under investigation for funneling millions from various union deals into his son's law firm, according to records obtained by the Sun-Times.

Coli has been a player in city and state politics, playing a pivotal role in Rahm Emanuel's mayoral election in 2011 and serving on the Illinois Labor Advisory Board for Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. He was also a key supporter of former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn.

Coli proved himself an invaluable ally to city officials, helping, for example, Emanuel secure new work rules at McCormick Place to make the city convention center "more competitive."

The threat of a strike during an unusually cold Chicago winter showed Local 700 members' potential power to bring the city to a grinding halt. With this in mind, it's not surprising that both the city and union officials would strive for an agreement before a strike authorization vote could happen.

Faced with Emanuel's unrelenting attack on public-sector workers, Local 700 members have more fights ahead against their employer. But they have another struggle to build a union that prioritizes making demands for its members, not backroom deals to preserve business-as-usual in City Hall.

Elizabeth Schulte contributed to this article.

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