Leven: City Council Needs to Practice Patience When it Comes to Union Contracts

When City Council gets used to ceding final control of the contract negotiations to the mayor's office, it increases the risk of taxpayers and service recipients getting a bad deal.

This article was published with Crain's Chicago Business.

This column, produced by Policy Manager Rachel Leven, follows an analysis she wrote on the city's contract negotiations. Read about what's in the latest city contract with trades unions here.


The City of Chicago is in the process of renegotiating contracts with all of its labor unions, which make up the vast majority of the city’s 34,000 or so employees. The first of these negotiations, which came to a close in January, yielded a new five-year contract with trade unions, laborers, and teamsters, collectively the Coalition of Unionized Public Employees (COUPE) and has been deemed a win for the city.

There are, in fact, financial gains in the new COUPE contract, including lower salary increases and increased health care contributions from members that help offset the cost to taxpayers. But, aldermen rushed through the process of approving the COUPE agreement with a troubling lack of transparency and accountability. With 71 percent of the city’s employees still in negotiation, more hard work is ahead—and aldermen need to be part of the process.

The city’s negotiations with seven remaining unions is taking place behind closed doors, and the entire process is exempt from Illinois transparency laws. Like the COUPE agreement, the first time these agreements will see the light of day is when the administration asks the City Council to approve them.

While confidentiality at the negotiation table is not unusual, it makes transparency and careful analysis by aldermen at the closing of these agreements critical.

Unfortunately, that kind of process was not on display for the COUPE agreements. Just before a three-day weekend, aldermen and the media were provided with a well-organized presentation of what was in the agreement. Less than a week later—and with fewer than two hours of public discussion—aldermen voted unanimously to pass it. The mayor’s office achieved this breakneck speed by introducing the idea of the agreement, without its full language, directly into a committee for immediate discussion, instead of waiting until the next City Council meeting. The actual language of the agreement was not published until well after aldermen had unanimously approved it.

If the administration is doing its job, it can, and should, expect a friendly approval process. Typically, the administration’s team is in touch with key stakeholders, like aldermen, throughout negotiations to help set priorities at the negotiating table.

However, even when intentions are pure and the picture is rosy, the process used to get the COUPE agreement through the council is problematic. With one stakeholder—the mayor—controlling all the information, and with limited time to digest the final ink on the paper, everyone else just has to trust him. When the City Council gets used to ceding final control of the process to the administration, it increases the risk of taxpayers and service recipients getting a bad deal.

Several of the ongoing contract negotiations, particularly those with public safety employees, will be more complicated, costly, and difficult to win. Some negotiations may end up in arbitration, which can seem like it ties the hands of lawmakers. However, even in arbitration, aldermen are an important part of the process—if they choose to be.

To begin with, aldermen need to make their priorities clear. Members of the City Council’s Progressive and Black Caucuses, have started this by promising to vote against any police contract that does not contain accountability reforms.

Next, aldermen also need to look to experts outside the administration to confirm the city’s representation of the agreements and their future impact on both city services and finances. During the committee hearing for the COUPE agreement, Ald. Brendan Reilly asked if a review of the agreement had been requested from the Council Office of Financial Analysis. It was not. It should have been. What is the purpose of the City Council’s financial expert, if not to provide an analysis of a deal that will impact city finances and use of tax dollars for five years?

Asking questions and seeking outside input, such as a review from the council’s financial expert, might mean taking another week before the City Council vote. A week, even two, should not be too much to ask from the unions and the administration. It takes months to negotiate these agreements, aldermen should demand more than a few days and a simple powerpoint before they approve them.

About the Author

Rachel L. Leven

Rachel Leven is the BGA’s policy manager focusing on Chicago and Cook County. Before joining the BGA, Leven ran communications for the City of Chicago Office of Inspector General (OIG), a nationally renowned municipal oversight agency.