CFL News
July 02, 2012

Delicate balance: City budget, workers’ lives

Sun-Times columnist Carol Marin looks at the struggles of janitors who lost their jobs with the City of Chicago due to privatization

Source: Chicago Sun-Times

By Carol Marin

Fifty Chicago janitors lost their jobs this week.

It’s not headline news. Not like the Supreme Court and ObamaCare. Or the City Council’s new approach to pot possession.

But if you are Gregory Bruce, Pamela Broughton, Shirley McCondichie or Catalina Bojorquez, it is earth-shaking, heart-stopping, terrible news.

Black, white and Hispanic, they are full-time janitors in their 40s and 50s. Their job has been to mop, wax and clean police stations and clinics on the city’s South Side, with a take-home pay of $27,000 a year — just a notch above the poverty level.

All are taxpayers. All have kids. All, because they belong to the Service Employees Union, have health insurance and a modest pension.

“I have never been out of work in my life,” Shirley McCondichie said. “Never, not in 33 years.”

They all lost their jobs because the City of Chicago, which long ago privatized much of its janitorial work to outside firms, rebid its janitorial contracts. And 20 percent of the new contract, unlike the old one, went to a nonunion firm called Dayspring, a minority- and woman-owned company in South Holland.

Dayspring, while promising to pay the prevailing rates for janitorial work, is under no obligation to keep the current employees. And by hiring new workers at entry-level wages and turning some full-time work into part-time work, they can save money and charge the city less.

Is there a villain in this story? It’s not that simple.

In a wretched economy with state and local governments drowning in red ink, city procurement officer Jamie Rhee said, “As stewards of taxpayer money, we put out the bid to get the best price for the city. We keep it open and competitive. . . . [There are] tough choices . . . to make sure the city is on a sustainable financial track.”

The new, nonunion company that got the bid argues it shouldn’t be cast as a villain either.

“I know you have to report this story,” said Dayspring owner Anita Harris, “but this is a dream for us. Talk about small businesses growing. . . . We are not doing a bad thing, we are doing a good thing.”

SEIU contends that with this new contract, the city is trying to kill the union.

“It’s union-busting, absolutely,” maintained Tom Balanoff, president of Local 1.

But just as forcefully, the Emanuel administration points to a recent series of compromise agreements the new mayor has forged with electrical workers, laborers and stagehands as evidence of the city’s continuing commitment to organized labor.

There are many sides to this story.

But what about those 50 out-of-work janitors who are losing jobs, insurance and pensions this week? How much government money is saved if they have to rely on Medicaid and food stamps?

At the moment, the City Council has a bill in committee called the Responsible Bidders Ordinance. It proposes to establish minimum requirements for wages, insurance and worker retention as municipal contracts are rebid.

It’s not a perfect piece of legislation.

But it speaks to a critical issue of dislocated workers.

People with real names.

Gregory. Pamela. Shirley. Catalina.