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Union blues
SEIU loss on worker bill shows biz can win despite Democratic rule

Monday, October 03, 2005
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz

When the state's fastest-growing labor union asks Democratic lawmakers for a favor on an innocuous-sounding matter, you'd expect the request to be granted forthwith.

That, at least, was the hope of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which generally has been on a roll in getting what it wants from the political set.

But in recent months, SEIU has been rebuffed in Democratic-dominated Springfield on a key bill. The same scenario is setting up at the Democrat-run Cook County Board. And therein lies a tale about how organized labor can't always count on its political pals — and how an outnumbered but far-from-impotent business community still has muscle to flex.

At issue is a proposed "displaced workers act," which regional SEIU President Tom Balanoff likens to the federal plant-closure notification law. As originally drafted, it would require that janitors, guards and maintenance workers get 90 days to prove their worth when the buildings where they work change hands, rather than be summarily fired by the new owners, which is what often happens now.

The bill zipped through the Illinois House last year 112-3. But by the time James DeLeo, D-Chicago, picked up sponsorship in the Senate, real estate industry lobbyists were dialing up opposition. In particular, they objected to a clause mandating that, after the 90-day period, the new owners would have to conduct written performance evaluations and keep on staff anyone rated satisfactory.

"This would be a terrible law for business," argues Ronald Vukas, executive vice-president of the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Chicago (Boma), a trade group that led opposition to the bill. The possibly illegal "intervention in the collective bargaining process" would discourage anyone from buying property here because they couldn't control their costs, he says.

The issue quickly caught on with other business groups, from bankers to hospitals. In response, SEIU agreed to water down the bill by shortening the review period to three weeks and clearly exempting economic layoffs from coverage. But with industry groups whispering that the bill would require an owner to employ a convicted child molester as a security guard, Mr. DeLeo and Senate Democrats had enough.

"(SEIU) told me there was no opposition to the bill," says Mr. DeLeo. In fact, "every known lobbyist in the Midwest" opposed it, he gripes. The measure ended up being defeated 19-37 this January, with "no" votes from Mr. DeLeo and nine other Democrats.

Now, SEIU is not one to back off a fight. A principle — and the union's clout — is at stake. As Mr. Balanoff puts it, "All we're trying to say is that the workers a new owner needs have to come from the existing workforce."

So, the union called thousands of voters in each of the districts of the 10 hostile Democrats, making the point that defection has its price. And it arranged for a similar bill to come before the County Board, where Democrats run the show just like in the General Assembly.

At a hearing last month, Boma raised new questions about legality and security implications. In response, board President John Stroger, who loves labor but likes business' campaign cash, too, shelved the bill at least until he gets an opinion on whether the county has the legal authority to mandate written performance evaluations. Though SEIU officials deny it, the Stroger camp leaves the distinct impression he would just as soon see the bill go away.

That leaves Mr. Stroger's co-sponsor on the measure, Commissioner Lawrence Suffredin, holding the bag by himself. But perhaps not for long. While Mr. Suffredin says he's redrafting the legislation and stands by the concept of the original bill, he also says his intent is to mandate only a "tryout period," not a job.

SEIU's Mr. Balanoff says it's all been worth it, if only to find out who his real friends are. "When it comes to protecting workers in the private sector, most politicians are afraid to take on big business," he concludes.

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