CFL News
May 28, 2013

What’s Keeping Chicago Federation Of Labor President Jorge Ramirez Up At Night

"We just can’t let the law define who unions are."

Source: Chicago Sun-Times/Grid

By Francine Knowles

Workplace safety and immigration reform are among issues that keep Chicago Federation of LaborPresident Jorge Ramirez up at night. The head of one of the largest labor federations in the country, with representation from 320 local unions that represent more than 500,000 workers, is charged with helping to address those and other challenges. Ramirez shares his biggest concerns and his views on political players and pension reform and what’s needed to boost unions’ depleted ranks.

Major issues: “The high level of unemployment and underemployment. We’re starting to see signs of recovery in the economy, but many of the things that were broken haven’t been fixed. The middle class is as small as it has been since the 1950s. The gap between wealthy and poor is the largest it has ever been. Productivity has more than doubled over the last couple of decades, but salaries haven’t. You can’t have a small middle class and a ridiculously wealthy class and a ridiculously poor class. There’s got to be some type of commitment to expanding the middle class, and that’s what labor is all about.”

Pension reform path: “There’s going to be critics of what’s been put out there…. There’s a great likelihood that there will be lawsuits. But our mission is clear. How we got here is clear. Workers were the only ones that never missed a payment and did everything they were ever asked to do. It’s very simple for us. We’re supposed to fight to maintain those pensions.”

Rahm — labor friend or foe? “Neither. I don’t know that it’s supposed to be a friend-or-foe type of relationship. I think it’s supposed to be one that’s respectful. The mayor and the organizations that we represent have some things in common. We all want the best for Chicago. Sometimes our opinions don’t jibe; they need to be reconciled. In instances where they can’t be, there still has to be a way to communicate, to figure out all the other areas that do come together. That’s part of the role that we play.”

Immigration priorities: “We want to make sure that the reforms that get in place are designed to keep families together and have a path to citizenship for these workers. What you want to do is bring this immigrant population out from the shadows, make sure they have the ability to defend their rights in the workplace.”

A pay and safety issue: “The level of pay amongst immigrant populations is particularly low. Wage theft is very high, particularly amongst immigrants. Here in Chicago alone wages are being stolen at a tune of about $1 million a day. Injuries and fatalities in the workplace have gone up for the last two decades, particularly among the immigrant population because [people working in the U.S. illegally] are more easily exploitable.”

On membership decline: “We’re going to have to go back to our roots, to some of the original ways that unions formed. We didn’t care what laws were in place or who told us who could unionize and who couldn’t and what a union was and wasn’t. If workers want to come together and be a union, they can have the same kind of impactfulness and effectiveness that they did years ago, and we’re going to have to get back to some of that. We’ve continued to work under the [National Labor Relations Board] structure only to be met with ineffectiveness, and we just can’t let the law define who unions are.”

Disappointments with Obama: “The administration told us they were committed to meaningful labor reform. Part of the problem with the [National Labor Relations Act] is there’s no potential economic impact that’s meaningful to an employer, so they just think I’ll just violate the law and it will be what it will be as opposed to justice. I thought the administration would do a lot more to fix some of these problems. They haven’t and that’s been a huge disappointment.”

Manufacturing is key: “The next eight to ten 10 years you’re going to see massive amounts of retirement in the high-skill, high road manufacturing. These are jobs that pay anywhere from $40,000 to $90,000 a year, good middle-class jobs. There’s the desire to keep that. That has become a priority. This is one of the areas where we’re working well with the mayor and World Business Chicago. Anytime we can assist with anything around manufacturing, we try to stick our nose in and make sure that it happens because the manufacturing multiplier for those jobs is around five to seven [additional jobs created]. It’s these types of jobs that you can really build an economy around.”

Odds for Chicago casino this year: “I’m not betting on it. But it’s probably more likely than not that it would happen. It’s long overdue. We’re losing $300 to $700 million a year depending on whose estimates you use. That’s way too much when considering all the great links that we go to buttress and develop our convention and tourism industry here. We should never let them go once they get here, but you see the limos and buses pull up to the hotels with Indiana license plates, and it drives me crazy.”