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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

In labor: a discussion with the SEIU's Tom Balanoff

Posted By on 05.28.08 at 03:49 PM

Since local SEIU leaders began mobilizing in 2006 to elect a City Council friendlier to “working families,” they’ve described their political work in Chicago as a potential model for labor across the country. And they came away from last year’s elections with something to show for it: nine new aldermen, most elected with the help of volunteers and cash from the union. (Not to mention a handful of incumbents grateful for SEIU's support.)

One year on, the impact of SEIU's efforts is open to debate [pdf]. The union, though, is getting ready to take the Chicago strategy nationwide: after this fall’s elections, members of Congress who fail to work for extended health care benefits and labor organizing rights may end up as targets of SEIU’s “Justice for All” accountability campaign--and the $150 million union leaders are willing to spend on it. (Of course, all of this is contingent on the plans winning approval at SEIU’s international convention June 2 to 4 in Puerto Rico, which isn’t a given, since dissension and discontent has stirred the ranks.)

I recently spoke to Tom Balanoff, president of the union’s Illinois state council, about the congressional campaign, Chicago’s rookie aldermen, and the union’s relationship with the always looming figure of Richard M. Daley.

MD: So you essentially want to take the 2007 Chicago model and apply it to Congress?

TB: We absolutely do. The alderman’s races were really an effort on SEIU and labor’s part to say "How do we establish an independent political base?" I think a lot of good things have already started happening in terms of creating an independent bloc there in the City Council, and I think a lot of good things came out of that for labor.

But it is really a question of specific issues—we want to establish some political power to get real results for working families on things like health care, the war, and the labor movement. I think the Democrats understand, especially Barack Obama, that we have to work to raise income. My father was a steelworker who managed to put four kids through college and buy a house. Now that’s a lot tougher to do.  I think we have real opportunities this fall, not just by electing Barack Obama but I also think we’re going to win [the races] down the ballot. And by "we" I mean primarily Democratic candidates who are backing issues for working families.

 
To be frank, though, organized labor is basically a special interest for Democrats.

We actually have a lot of Republican support, and we need it. We have to have real health care reform, and to do that we need Republicans on board.

 
You’re solidly behind Barack Obama, but his health care plan has been criticized for not being universal.

This whole question of mandates verses no mandates is a real issue, and we have to figure it out. We have to get a system together. But if we could get a system [like his] where we could get five million more people health care, I’d be willing to take it and start working out the kinks. To get where we need to get, there’s going to have to be some compromises. But we’ve got to do something. I mean, how long has it been? Sixty years since Harry Truman started talking about this?

 
Are you focused on any races right now in our area?

Here in Illinois, we’ll be focusing very heavily on three or four congressional seats we think we can turn Democratic--Jerry Weller’s seat, Mark Kirk’s seat, and Ray LaHood’s seat. We also here in Illinois are going to focus a lot on our neighboring states--Indiana especially. We’ll also be in Wisconsin and Iowa, working on voter registration. And we’ll be in Missouri.

 
You say you need Republican help to do something about health care, but you’re going after Mark Kirk, who’s widely considered a moderate.

I know Mark Kirk--he’s my congressman. And he’s moderate only in the context of how far the whole political spectrum has gone to the right. He gives lip service to a lot of stuff but he’s supported President Bush on a whole range of issues.

 
What lessons did you learn from the 2007 City Council races?

What we demonstrated is that we can put our members in motion--we can get our members to contribute, and we can get them out there to work. We demonstrated we had money, people, and time, and that’s pretty powerful.

There are shifting politics here in the city and the state. And I think it’s important from SEIU’s standpoint, from labor’s standpoint, that we did establish a bigger voice. Now you know Chicago--I could have elected every one of my cousins as a judge by now if I wanted that. But we’re trying to figure out how we move public policy to our issues.

There is now a group of aldermen in the City Council who are working a little bit more in concert on key issues. I do think it’s made the mayor a little more sensitive to issues that in the past he hasn’t been as sensitive to.

 
Still, at least some of the aldermen you supported last year have turned out to be regular votes for Mayor Daley.

I think there’s an understanding starting to evolve with labor that we need to build political power for ourselves and not for candidates, and the way we do that is to make sure we’re working on particular issues. The only permanent friends we have are those politicians who stick with our issues.

 
I’ve heard from several sources that the mayor has sought you out and offered an olive branch so he can have peace while he tries to win the Olympics bid.

The mayor and I have talked since the elections. We talked about broader public policy issues, the Olympics being one of them. And from our standpoint, and I said it even during the elections, that this isn’t about going after Mayor Daley. And there is a way we can have a more progressive impact by working together.

 
So you’re behind the Olympics bid?

We support the idea of the Olympics. We obviously have very specific concerns that there be labor agreements so that all communities, all workers, benefit from the building. And we hope that if we do get the Olympics, we hope that all of Chicago can benefit from it. I’m hoping that the Olympics will be an engine to help take care of some of our problems, like the CTA.

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