06/29/2011 03:24 pm ET | Updated Aug 29, 2011

Emanuel, Unions Set For Clash: Chicago Mayor Issues Ultimatum, Threatens Layoffs

CHICAGO -- Known for a style that might politely be described as "no nonsense," Mayor Rahm Emanuel lived up to his reputation Wednesday, issuing an ultimatum to the city's labor unions: Go along with the proposed changes, or face hundreds of layoffs.

It's the first shot Emanuel has fired in a battle that's raging across the nation. With Wisconsin's highly controversial laws restricting collective bargaining now officially in effect and many other states looking to limit the power of unions, Emanuel is now talking tough in order to extract budgetary concessions from organized labor.

If his modifications to union work rules are accepted, Emanuel said at a Wednesday morning press conference, "I don't have to lay off 625 people. I'm about creating jobs and growing the economy, but I need [the unions] to be a partner in this."

If not, he said, "I will lay people off."

The showdown between the mayor and organized labor was set up in part by recently retired Mayor Richard M. Daley. He had negotiated a deal with the unions that included 24 furlough days a year, during which union employees were required to take off work for no pay to save money. In Daley's budget for 2011, he included the $30 million in savings generated by the furloughs, despite the fact that the deal would expire in June.

Earlier in the week, Emanuel announced that he'd be eliminating furlough days. "I do not think the furlough from either a morale perspective or from a cost perspective achieved everything or was the panacea that it was said to do," Emanuel told ABC-7 on Tuesday, in the rambling syntax Chicagoans are growing accustomed to.

"But," he said, "I'm committed to seeing through the $30 million savings -- make no mistake about it. That's not an option."

So the savings had to be found elsewhere. The work-rule changes that Emanuel is demanding of the unions are meant to account for $20 million of that total. He wouldn't give any specifics on what the changes would be, saying only that "a lot of them are already done in unionized workplaces in the private sector."

Without those savings, Emanuel said he would need to make hundreds of layoffs to meet the budget gap left by ending furloughs.

Union leaders were surprised by the threat of job losses, and the urgency of Emanuel's demands -- the mayor is pushing for the changes to be approved by Thursday at midnight, the date of expiration of the furlough-days contract.

But that date "hasn't snuck up on anyone, the city's known about it for a long time," Chicago Federation of Labor spokesman Nick Kaleba told The Huffington Post. Kaleba says that even Alderman Pat O'Connor, Emanuel's right-hand man in the City Council, has said that it's not a hard-and-fast deadline for a new contract to be negotiated.

In fact, CFL president Jorge Ramirez and Chicago Building Trades Council head Tom Villanova met with Emanuel on Tuesday to discuss a number of cost-saving measures, a meeting Kaleba described as "productive."

"They didn't say anything about 625 layoffs" at that meeting, he added.

Kaleba also said that even the CFL hasn't seen the specifics of the proposed work-rule changes, which raises the question of how labor is supposed to respond to a proposal it hasn't seen.

Robert Bruno, professor of labor employment relations at the University of Illinois, Chicago, said that the specifics of the deal would be vital to how the unions will react. "The proof is in the tasting of the pudding," he told HuffPost.

Some work-rule changes, Bruno said, could be entirely palatable to unions -- adjusting rules to fit modern technology, for instance. Others could elicit "a fairly hostile reaction," stripping control from workers in a number of areas. "When mayors or employers talk about wanting to negotiate concessions on work rules, they’re typically saying they want more unilateral power over the workplace and over the workers," he said.

Either way, he was unconvinced that the changes would fill the gap left by the end of furloughs. "This tends to be accounting by magic. Can you really equate these savings to dollars? Will you really see $30 million in savings? It's all very questionable."

Still, if there's one thing Mayor Emanuel is known for other than his occasionally coarse style, it's his stringent demand for measurable results.

He didn't say whether or not he'd wait the two weeks union leaders have asked for to deliver their own package of cuts before issuing pink slips. But he didn't sound particularly patient on the subject, either.

"I'm not just going to sit here and wait," the mayor said Wednesday morning. "I'll make certain decisions."