Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday September 24th, 2013, 6:57pm

Chicago's Public Employees Want New Contract With Fair Wages, Privatization Safeguards

Chicago public employees picketed downtown Tuesday, calling on Mayor Rahm Emanuel to settle a new union contract with AFSCME Council 31 that includes decent wages that keep up with inflation.

A new contract must also include "common sense" rules meant to prevent bad privatization deals and protect public services and workers, according to the dozens of public employees who protested near City Hall.

The union’s previous contract with the city was set to expire July 1, 2012, but it was temporarily extended. Workers have been at the bargaining table with the city bartering over a new contract for more than a year and a half.

"Any company should want to pay their employees fair wages but the transparency with the privatization, it's really a huge issue, because what (the mayor) is basically trying to do is sell off the city of Chicago," said Nicole Herron, who's worked in the city's finance department for 18 years. "If he does that, we lose a huge part of the middle class and lower-class people who make up a bulk of the city."

Herron called it "backwards" that the city requires its workers to live in Chicago, yet it doesn't pay them enough to live in the city comfortably. It's "shameful", Herron said, that the mayor has come to the table with just a half of a percent cost-of-living pay increase, which is no where close to keeping up with inflation.

"Cost of living really goes up two to three percent every year," she stressed.

Diana Taylor Williams, an employee at the city's department of innovation and technology, said the half of a percent pay increase is an "insult." Another employee at Tuesday's protest called it a "slap in the face".

"When you work for years with no pay increases, every now and then you should be able to get that," she said. "We have to live here ... We have bills. We are trying to keep our houses and pay [for] things. We need the money to do that."

The public employees, some of whom work to provide clean, safe drinking water and provide health care in city clinics, haven't had a pay increase in nearly two years, stressed Roberta Lynch, deputy director of AFSCME Council 31.

"We don't think the mayor recognizes the vitally important work these frontline workers do providing services that are absolutely essential," Lynch said.

But overall, Herron and other workers said the bigger concern is privatization. City workers can receive all the pay raises in the world, but if the mayor shuts down their department, it's not going to matter, she stressed.

A number of the workers pointed to the "disastrous" privatization deal implemented earlier this year involving the city's water billing center. The deal resulted in the outsourcing of some 30 city jobs to a Japan-based company, NTT Data. The move saved the city just $100,000 in 2013.

Carol Sallis, one of the water call center workers, said she and the employees were able to fill vacancies in different city departments. The only reason they weren't completely fired, she said, was because they grabbed the attention of some aldermen.

"If we hadn't put ourselves out there, sending letters to the aldermen, going to meetings, we would have been on the layoff list," she stressed.

But the bottom line, Herron said, is that the deal was supposed to help reduce customer complaints and make the process more efficient. In reality, it's turned out to be a "complete disaster." Her department receives the water billing center's paperwork in order to cash the payments, and there are just as many, if not more, customer complaints since it's been privatized, she noted.

The public workers also want the mayor to allow the Privatization Transparency and Accountability Ordinance, introduced last November by Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), to see the light of day. The ordinance would require the city to hold a hearing and conduct a cost-effectiveness study before any privatization deal involving assets or services is put up for a full city council vote, among other transparency provisions. The ordinance is still stuck in the rules committee and has not had an open hearing before the council.

The deal with NTT Data is just one example of why Chicago's public employees say such an ordinance is needed and why a new union contract needs to include common-sense standards meant to protect city services and good jobs for city residents.

"The entire process, it hasn't been streamlined," Herron said of the deal. "Nothing has been changed." 

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