O'HARE — As hundreds of workers prepare to strike Tuesday at O’Hare Airport as their fight over pay and benefits escalates, the dispute has its roots in a 2011 move by Mayor Rahm Emanuel to give an airport maintenance contract to a non-union firm.
Airport workers who handle bags, clean jets and help passengers in wheelchairs are set to walk off the job Tuesday in a bid to improve their working conditions and boost their pay to $15 per hour as part of an action organized by Service Employees International Union Local 1.
The union has been a fierce opponent of the mayor since he moved — a few months after taking office in 2011 — to award a five-year janitorial contract worth $99 million to United Maintenance Co. Inc., which meant the loss of 320 union jobs at O'Hare.
While Emanuel said the deal was designed to lower the city's costs, union officials — and some aldermen — criticized it, saying it would lead to the loss of good-paying jobs at O'Hare Airport.
SEIU organizers have been trying to unionize those workers ever since, and now the effort has grown to include about 3,500 workers for firms that have contracts with the city as well as with airlines at O'Hare, said Gerald Morrison, special assistant to the President of SEIU Local 1.
Tuesday's strike — which union officials have said is unlikely to shut down O'Hare but is designed to disrupt operations — is also part of a national effort by the SEIU to organize airport workers and push for a $15-per-hour minimum wage, Morrison said.
"This is part of a much larger fight," Morrison said.
A spokesman for the Chicago Department of Aviation said city officials have had "held discussions with the airlines" about how to reduce the impact of the labor action on travelers and the city "does not anticipate any disruption in service" because of the strike.
The union has also not been shy in flexing its political and financial muscles at City Hall.
In the 2011 election, the SEIU spent $80,000 to help Ald. Mary O'Connor win the 41st Ward seat representing the airport along with the far northwest corner of the city.
But the union pulled its support of O'Connor after she supported Emanuel's deal with United Maintenance Co. Inc., Morrison said.
In the 2015 aldermanic election, the union supported former firefighter Anthony Napolitano, even though he is not a Democrat.
But not only did the union oppose O'Connor's re-election — cutting off a major source of funding for her campaign — but the union and its affiliates also paid for approximately $80,000 worth of negative ads blasting her as bad for working families during the runoff campaign.
But the union was less successful earlier this year, when it tried — and failed — to get a nonbinding question on the Nov. 8 ballot designed to boost efforts to strip Emanuel of his control of O'Hare and Midway airports.
The union has also accused the non-union firms — and filed complaints with the city and state — of cheating O'Hare workers who worked off the clock or didn't earn enough tips to reach the minimum wage out of approximately $1 million this year.
Those complaints were echoed by several aldermen during budget review hearings, who said the city should not be doing business with firms that engage in wage theft.
During that hearing, Aviation Commissioner Ginger Evans said there was no debate over fair pay for airport workers.
"We absolutely, completely agree, that the workforce has to be fairly compensated," Evans said.
A city spokesman said each of the complaints will be investigated.
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