Chicago’s human services providers may soon be required to sign “labor agreements” that allow their employees to join unions in order to qualify for millions of dollars in city grants — even as the mandate puts service levels at risk.
Two City Council committees — Workforce Development and Health and Human Relations — voted 24 to 5 Tuesday to impose this requirement on social service providers with 20 or more employees. It lays the groundwork for a full vote in the council on Wednesday.
The lopsided vote came after a spirited two-hour debate with dire warnings about essential services that could be reduced or eliminated if unionization ultimately results in higher wages for a workforce dominated by women of color.
A collective agreement does not trigger a union. It simply gives employees the opportunity to organize and join unions if they wish, without fear of retaliation. In exchange, labor organizations generally agree not to participate in work stoppages, boycotts or other job actions.
Still, just the threat of higher costs was enough to scare off human service providers and their advocates.
Jack Lavin, president of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, went so far as to warn that human services taxed to the limit during the pandemic would be “devastated” and “crippled” by the requirement. Some organizations that “support our most vulnerable populations” will be forced to “eliminate jobs or close their doors entirely,” he said.
“For those nonprofits with big enough budgets, they will simply choose not to provide these services in the city rather than comply with external demands from these labor organizations,” Lavin said, echoing a warning last month from Cardinal Blasé Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago.
“And for the smaller nonprofits that rely on city funding, they will simply fold as a result of forced operating costs they simply cannot bear. … The pandemic brought the city’s care and social services to breaking point. Inflation has only exacerbated the underfunding of these organizations. Labor and labor shortages are dire. This ordinance would be the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
For Lavin, the argument is personal. He has a child with “intellectual disabilities”.
“I can say firsthand that this would be a devastating blow to families like mine across the city,” he said.
Chicago Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said she is also “concerned about disruptions to essential health and human services” due to the “unintended consequences” of a “well-intentioned” ordinance.
“We partner with a lot of organizations that help provide vital services to Chicago’s most vulnerable populations. We do a lot of work — whether it’s housing and supportive services, whether it’s drug overdose prevention and street outreach,” Arwady said.
“I am concerned that disruptions to these services – either because organizations decide they cannot contract with us … or simply delays while organizations work to understand this process – could destabilize these efforts. We want to make sure people can get services that are affordable and close to their homes. … This can be a worthwhile administrative burden that it adds. But it still increases the burden.”
Workforce Development Board Chair Susan Sadlowski Garza (10th) noted that the labor peace ordinance was the product of a “three-year process” with no less than “five listening sessions.”
When Arwady asked that the ordinance be held in committee without a vote being taken, Garza coldly shut the commissioner down.
“If you haven’t seen this ordinance in three years, then shame on you [Lightfoot] administration for not bringing it to you and talking to you,” said the retiring Garza.
“You can’t figure out a budget for this because a labor agreement has no budget. … We don’t even know if every organization is going to choose to organize. So this whole premise that this is going to put people out of business and cut programs and all that — we have no idea who’s ever going to benefit from a collective bargaining agreement.”
Chicago Federation of Labor President Bob Reiter accused social service providers of trying to “run out the clock.”
Delaying the vote “will not change anything,” he said. “The world is not going to end when we pass this ordinance. What is going to happen is that workers will have a good chance of having representation at these agencies without being subjected to publicly funded anti-union attacks.”