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Mayor Brandon Johnson has gotten campaign contributions from more than a dozen unions with which City Hall negotiates contracts.

Mayor Brandon Johnson has gotten campaign contributions from more than a dozen unions with which City Hall negotiates contracts.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere

Brandon Johnson’s campaign fund has taken millions from unions with City Hall contracts

The Chicago Teachers Union, for which Mayor Brandon Johnson was a longtime member and labor organizer, was pivotal in getting him elected earlier this year.

Representing roughly 25,000 Chicago Public Schools educators and related staff, the CTU has put more than $2.3 million into Johnson’s campaign fund since late 2022, and state and national teachers unions have given him another $3.3 million, according to campaign filings.

The CTU isn’t the only union with interests in city government to give Johnson money. During the same period, Johnson’s campaign fund got a total of $5.7 million from other unions and labor groups. Most of that came from more than a dozen unions that negotiate with City Hall and its governmental sister agencies on behalf of public employees.

Some of those labor groups supported failed mayoral candidate Paul Vallas in last April’s runoff election and only recently contributed to Johnson’s political fund.

Altogether, more than 80% of the $13.6 million that the mayor’s campaign fund, Friends of Brandon Johnson, has raised since late 2022 came from organized labor and affiliated organizations.

Beyond the teachers, the Service Employees International Union was responsible for the largest chunk of labor money, giving more than $4.5 million to Johnson. That includes $1.8 million from an arm that represents health workers in the Midwest.

Another SEIU chapter, Local 73, has two contracts that were approved by the Chicago City Council on Sept. 18 and another in “active negotiations” with the Johnson administration, according to City Hall.

Asked about the money from city labor unions, Johnson campaign adviser Bill Neidhardt says, “To echo Mayor Johnson, it’s a pretty cool thing to be supported by working people.”

Neidhardt says: “The mayor believes that building campaigns through solidarity with working people is a good thing. When working class people support Mayor Johnson, we see it as a vote of confidence in his approach to governing. Throughout all of this, our campaign’s fundraising with unions has followed every and all campaign laws and regulations, full stop.”

Chicago Teachers Union Pres. Stacy Davis Gates smiles during a press conference where Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson announced that he is running for mayor of Chicago at Seward Park in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022

Chicago Teachers Union Pres. Stacy Davis Gates smiles during a press conference where Cook County Commissioner Brandon Johnson announced that he is running for mayor of Chicago at Seward Park in the Cabrini-Green neighborhood, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2022.

Pat Nabong

The mayor’s aides won’t say whether his campaign solicited contributions from unions.

A longtime Teamsters official, whose union has several contracts with City Hall, including three now being negotiated, says, “I got the phone calls, but we were with Vallas, so that abruptly stopped.”

Vallas got union money, too

Vallas, a Daley administration budget director and former CPS CEO, got contributions from unions including the Teamsters, the International Union of Operating Engineers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, all which have contracts with City Hall.

A SEIU political action committee run by Local 73’s president Dian Palmer and secretary-treasurer Joseph Richert gave $250,000 to Johnson’s campaign on Nov. 18, 2022, $100,000 on Feb. 7, $25,000 on Feb. 24 and $75,000 on March 27.

Local 73 also gave $65,000 of “in-kind contributions” to Johnson for campaign signs and buttons and the like as well as salaries for campaign workers. Local 73 includes more than 1,000 Chicago city employees whose jobs include janitors, window-washers and aviation security officers.

The union also represents more than 10,000 CPS employees and over 2,000 Chicago Park District employees — agencies ultimately under the authority of the mayor and involved in ongoing contract talks with the city.

Asked about his union giving money to a politician whose decisions can affect its members, Local 73 spokesman Eric Bailey says, “The law allows it, so it’s appropriate.”

City rules bar mayors from accepting campaign money from city employees and city contractors, but unions that represent city workers are allowed to give, according to the Chicago Board of Ethics.

Past mayors have taken unions’ money

Lori Lightfoot and other past mayors also took campaign contributions from unions including those representing municipal employees. The Laborers Union gave Lightfoot more than $800,000, most of that ahead of her 2019 election. Also, months before she lost her bid for reelection this year, she got $25,000 from the union.

The Laborers Union — whose members include garbage truck crews — gave more than $700,000 to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s main campaign fund during his two terms in office and also gave money to Mayor Richard M. Daley.

Bailey stresses that Local 73 isn’t negotiating directly with Johnson and points to a lack of movement in talks with the park district.

Regarding unions that negotiate directly with City Hall, a law department spokeswoman says: “The city’s bargaining team, which includes attorneys from the labor division in the city’s Department of Law, sit down with union representatives to negotiate the terms of successor labor contracts. Once the parties reach agreement, the proposed agreement is ratified by the applicable union and presented to City Council for approval.”

Switching from Vallas to Johnson

Since Vallas lost to Johnson in April, campaign filings show unions representing city employees that had endorsed or given heavily to Vallas’ campaign have given money to Johnson, including:

  • The Laborers Union, whose district council gave Johnson $200,000 on May 11. Two chapters, Local 1001 and 1092, signed contracts with the city that got City Council approval in September.
  • The Illinois Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which has given Johnson $110,000 since May. The City Council approved two IBEW contracts with City Hall in September. Another IBEW local is negotiating with the Johnson administration.
  • The Operating Engineers Local 399, which gave Johnson $50,000 on June 29 and has a City Hall contract that was approved in September. A group affiliated with the Operating Engineers Local 150, which has city union contracts, gave Johnson $8,000 on April 27.
  • The Chicago Fire Fighters Union Local 2, which represents rank-and-file firefighters and paramedics, gave Johnson $500 on June 29. The union has been in contract talks with City Hall for two years.
  • The Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local Union 130, whose city contract was approved in September, gave Johnson $10,000 on June 2, $10,000 on June 29 and $10,000 on Sept. 28.

James Coyne, the plumbers union local’s business manager, says: “We’ll work with whoever is on the fifth floor of City Hall. We have to. They employ 300 of my members in the water department,” including crews that will be working to address the city’s lead-pipe problems.

Some labor groups also have helped the mayor raise money. The Chicago Federation of Labor, a coalition of unions, covered nearly $5,000 in food costs for a Johnson fundraiser at Harry Caray’s Italian Steakhouse in April after Johnson’s victory.

The ties between Johnson and the CTU have drawn scrutiny because, as mayor, he has authority over upcoming contract talks that will determine pay, benefits and work conditions for its members.

Besides the CTU, other unions representing workers in government agencies whose leaders are appointed by the mayor that have given him money include labor groups representing employees of the City Colleges of Chicago and the Chicago Housing Authority.

A CTU spokesman points out that the city’s residency requirement for CPS employees means that the union’s members are also Johnson’s constituents and thus doubly invested in the quality of the school system.

“The 25,000 city residents want a partner at CPS and a partner on the fifth floor of City Hall,” the spokesman says.

Calls for limits

Willie Wilson, a businessman who was among the losing candidates running for mayor in February, has called on Johnson to ban union contributions to mayoral campaigns, saying: “I don’t think politicians are running the city. I think the unions are running the city.” If a mayor takes unions’ money, Wilson says, the inclination is to “put them first, before the people.”

Wilson also wants Johnson to recuse himself from CTU contract talks that are expected to begin next year.

Ald. Gilbert Villegas (36th) says he’s considering introducing a measure to cap campaign contributions to city officials from unions that have contracts with City Hall and sister agencies.

The system “puts regular people at a disadvantage,” Villegas says. “To minimize the amount of money from special interests is always a good thing.”

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