3 ways Chicago Mayor Johnson is likely to repay unions for bankrolling him

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
August 24, 2023

3 ways Chicago Mayor Johnson is likely to repay unions for bankrolling him

Nearly 83% of Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson’s funding has been from unions, according to data obtained from Illinois Sunshine. More than half of that came from teachers unions. Here are three ways we could see him pay them back.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s first 100 days in office have already been marked by favors to his union friends – and rebuffs to those who didn’t funnel him money before and after the election.

Take the Chicago Teachers Union. After receiving millions of dollars from the union since 2017, a newly-inaugurated Johnson and CTU jointly announced a new paternity leave policy of 12 weeks for bargaining unit members.

What about groups that didn’t financially back his campaign? Ask the police. Johnson has reportedly rejected the Fraternal Order of Police’s request to extend the same paternity leave policy to police officers that he granted to his former coworkers in the CTU.

It’s the ultimate political quid pro quo: buy a politician’s way into office, and then he owes you.

And Johnson owes some unions big-time. Most of his campaign funding has come from unions, dating back to his run for Cook County commissioner to the present.

Between Dec. 4, 2017, and June 30, 2023, Johnson’s political committee received $14.17 million in funds, according to data obtained from Illinois Sunshine. Of that, $11.76 million came from unions.

That’s nearly 83%. Over half of that union money – more than $6 million – came from teachers unions, including CTU.

We’ve already seen some favors start rolling out to Johnson’s union friends. Here are three ways we can expect him to pay them back.

1. Collusion with the Chicago Teachers Union

Johnson, a former “legislative coordinator” for CTU, was hand-picked by the union to run for mayor. As of June 30, 2023, CTU had funneled more than $2.6 million into Johnson’s campaign coffers. He has received more than $6 million from teachers unions altogether.

Now he will be sitting across the table from his former CTU colleagues when they negotiate a new contract in 2024. Elected officials should represent taxpayers and be a neutral arbiter of what’s fair. But the tight relationship between Johnson and CTU effectively places CTU on both sides of the bargaining table.

Johnson’s response to a question during the WTTW mayoral forum Feb. 7 didn’t bode well for his ability to remain neutral toward the union during negotiations. When asked where he differs from the CTU, Johnson answered, “What kind of question is that?” He never answered the question.

Johnson’s speech after securing a spot in the mayoral run-off highlighted CTU’s role in his mayoral bid. After thanking God and his family, his third priority in giving thanks went to the city’s government unions, including CTU.

Then within the first month of his inauguration, Johnson expanded the current parental leave policy for CPS teachers to up to 12 weeks when it was from six to eight weeks. That expansion, which did not go through the typical bargaining process, was announced in a joint statement by the city and CTU.

Johnson’s inability to distinguish himself from the union backing him makes it likely he will continue pushing CTU’s radical agenda.

What’s on the line if he keeps toeing the CTU line? A plethora of expensive contract demands. Past demands include defunding the police – Johnson himself once said he would cut the Chicago Police budget by at least $150 million – defunding banks, and creating affordable housing. None of those potential provisions are typically negotiated into teachers union contracts, but could be under Johnson’s tenure.

That could cripple the citizens and businesses of Chicago. The five-year deal struck between CTU and former Mayor Lori Lightfoot in 2019 will end up costing Chicagoans at least $1.5 billion, according to the Chicago Tribune. A potential landmark deal from Johnson, with extra union perks and untraditional political provisions, could cost even more.

2. Other expensive collective bargaining agreements

CTU isn’t the only government union that will be expecting big perks and a costly new contract from the city.

The city has more than 40 other collective bargaining agreements with unions representing government workers. Every one of the listed contracts is expired. According to a city response to a Freedom of Information Act inquiry filed by the Illinois Policy Institute, those are indeed the most up-to-date contracts.

That means every one of them will be renegotiated by Johnson’s team, presenting an opportune time for Johnson’s union funders to make expensive demands.

Take the Service Employees International Union. Chicago has at least four contracts with various SEIU affiliates. Since December 2017, SEIU affiliates have funneled more than $4.7 million into Johnson’s political committee.

And with the passage of Illinois’ Amendment 1 last November, those demands could go beyond the typical contract subjects of wages and benefits – and be costly. This constitutional amendment guarantees the right of unions to negotiate over virtually anything, and it prohibits lawmakers from ever clarifying or restricting what can go into a government union’s collective bargaining agreement.

Of course, not all the unions contributed to Johnson’s campaign. Chicago’s FOP hasn’t contributed anything to his political committee, and it endorsed Johnson’s opponent, Paul Vallas, in the mayoral election. Johnson’s refusal to extend the same paternity benefits to police officers that he has already provided to CTU is a clear indication of his bias toward those who heavily funded his campaign – and against those who did not.

3. Appointing his friends to government positions

As the Chicago Sun-Times phrased it before Johnson’s inauguration, “Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson on Thursday fleshed out the senior staff who will accompany him into office in a way that shows the continued influence of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and the Chicago Teachers Union.”

One of his picks: Jennifer Johnson, former CTU chief of staff, who is now the deputy mayor for education, youth and human services. CTU President Stacy Davis Gates said she was “absolutely elated” by the appointment.

Johnson also included at least three SEIU friends on his transition team. Jessica Angus, the transition director, had been vice president and chief of staff of SEIU Healthcare since 2008. Amisha Patel, his senior advisor, had spent six years organizing with SEIU Local 73. Erica Bland-Durosinmi, his intergovernmental affairs advisor, was executive vice president of SEIU Healthcare.

Appointing friends isn’t new in the political sphere. But it is particularly concerning when those friends come from special-interest groups that can demand extravagant contracts with the city. That puts a special-interest group on both sides of the negotiating table.

The lesson here for unions in other cities? You can buy your way into office and create a pathway to getting anything you want.

Until recently, it looked like unions were on their way to accomplishing something similar in Philadelphia. Like Johnson, mayoral candidate Helen Gym is a former teacher and community organizer. She was endorsed by the American Federation of Teachers, the national affiliate of CTU, as well as the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

After Johnson’s election, Gym tweeted, “Elections change everything. From Philly to Chicago, a movement of educators fought against decades of austerity, anti-teacher, school closing policies and now we are remaking our cities. Joyful for Chicago. We got next Philly!”

Gym came in third in the May primary, but that doesn’t mean unions won’t try it again there or in some other city. The Socialist magazine In These Times said after the primary, “While her loss is certainly a blow to the progressive movement, no one should be planning any funerals for the Left — whether in Philly or across the country — any time soon. The election illustrated the increasingly influential role of the growing labor-left coalition in the city due to the strength of the Gym campaign, even though it ultimately failed to win out.”

Illinois has long been a bastion of union power and a test state for union-friendly labor reforms. Now that CTU and other unions have bankrolled Johnson’s way into office, other cities should expect to see the same.

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