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Mayor Set To Shift Focus To Police, Fire, Transit Union Contracts

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Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about the Chicago teachers' strike at City Hall, following a City Council meeting on Sept. 12, 2012. (Credit: CBS)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel talks about the Chicago teachers’ strike at City Hall, following a City Council meeting on Sept. 12, 2012. (Credit: CBS)

Jay Levine Jay Levine
Jay Levine is the chief correspondent for CBS 2 Chicago. He joined...
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CHICAGO (CBS) – With the two-week trauma of the Chicago teachers’ strike now behind him, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has turned his attention to other labor challenges ahead.

Police officers, firefighters, and transit workers are all either in contract talks, or getting ready to start negotiations.

CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine looked into how the outcome of the teachers’ strike might affect other public employees.

Perception is sometimes more important than reality, and if the perception is the teachers gained by taking a hard line and hitting the picket lines, even if Emanuel ended up getting most of what he wanted, other public employees might be tempted to take the same approach as the teachers.

“I actually think this strike is going to embolden other unions to take the mayor on,” said John Tilmon, CEO of the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think-tank.

“If the result of this, in the end, is that he gets control of the schools, and is able to – through accountability measures, in the end, that’s not in this contract, but through charter schools and other measures – if he’s able to hold them accountable, he can recover from this. But right now, he’s been greatly weakened.”

The mayor was right there to greet returning students Wednesday when classes resumed after the strike. But among the first questions he faced the first time he answered reporters’ questions was how would the teachers’ settlement – and how it came about – affect contract talks with police and firefighters.

“As you know we’ve been having conversations with the firefighters, and we’re gonna continue to have conversations with the firefighters,” Emanuel said Wednesday.

But the firefighters’ situation is somewhat different. They perform what’s described by state law as “essential services,” and aren’t allowed to strike.

Neither are police – whose negotiations are expected to be the most difficult – nor transit workers, who might be closer to either agreement or impasse than either of the public safety unions.

“The teachers taught us you can get what you want, and it also sent a message to all the politicians that you’re not gonna bully us no more,” said Amalgamated Transit Union Local 308 President Robert Kelly.

But it’s not only the labor unions learning lessons from the outcome of the contentious teachers’ contract talks. The mayor said he might have, too.

“There’s always lessons to learn. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago, when I started working for President Clinton. I’m a different person today. You learn things every day,” Emanuel said Wednesday.

But Robert Bruno, one of sharpest local labor relations experts at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said the mayor has a long way to go.

“It appeared as if he was more interested in winning; that he was involved in a fight, and he wanted to beat the union,” Bruno said.

“He wanted to beat them. He was looking for a victory, as opposed … what would it take to get a deal with my partners.”

If Emanuel were in his labor and employment relations class, Bruno said he would give the mayor “no better than maybe a D-minus” on collective bargaining issues.

But, if you think about it, that’s been the mayor’s m.o.

Though, as mayor, he has compromised with the City Council on his budget, on city sticker fees, and on library layoffs and hours.

Even Kelly, the tough-talking transit union chief, said he’s hopeful, even optimistic, about a settlement before scheduled binding arbibration in November.

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