After a String of Political Victories, a Union Has Clout to Spare

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As the debate intensifies over what to do about Springfield's $13 billion budget deficit, a powerful labor union has given Gov. Patrick J. Quinn another big number to take into account: $1.7 million.

That is the amount the Service Employees International Union contributed to the governor's primary campaign, state records show. The union's largesse represented more than 25 percent of all contributions to Mr. Quinn, who edged Dan Hynes, the state comptroller, in the Democratic primary on Feb. 2.

The union's 170,000 members in Illinois include about 7,500 state workers and tens of thousands of home health care and child care workers who are paid with state money.

An early supporter of Barack Obama's White House aspirations, the service employees union also backed the winners in the three highest-profile state primary races this year. Besides Mr. Quinn, it sided with Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic nominee for Mr. Obama's former United States Senate seat, and Toni Preckwinkle, who toppled Todd Stroger, the Cook County Board president.

"It was a good day for us," Tom Balanoff, president of the union's state council, said in an interview last week.

The union's successes culminated a long push for prominence that has seen it become the biggest financial contributor to Illinois political campaigns. Its campaign committees, which were only bit players in local politics a decade ago, have spent more than $10 million across Illinois in the past six years, a Chicago News Cooperative analysis of state campaign finance records found.

The money for that politicking comes from the dues paid by a fast-growing membership of mostly blue-collar laborers, including window washers, janitors, crossing guards, school cafeteria employees, garment workers, security guards and child care providers, some making as little as $8 an hour.

Critics in the business community, including the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce, say the service employees union contributed heavily to the governor's campaign in an obvious effort to spare its members from layoffs related to budget cuts.

Mr. Quinn has called for an increase in the state income tax to close the state's deficit. Through a spokeswoman, he declined to be interviewed for this article.

The leaders of the S.E.I.U. also support an income tax increase rather than further cuts in the state payroll.

"This situation has not been created by overspending," Mr. Balanoff said. "This has been created by a lack of revenue."

Mr. Balanoff, 59, has witnessed the transformation of the state's work force, as well as the labor union movement, to a more service-oriented economy from heavy industry. His father was a leader of the steelworkers union on Chicago's Southeast Side. While that union's membership dwindled with the decline of manufacturing, the service employees union has more than doubled in size during the last decade.

Under Mr. Balanoff's leadership, spending on political campaigns has skyrocketed from barely $11,000 in 2001 to more than $2 million in 2009 and at least another $822,000 in the month before this year's primary.

In the last three years, the union's campaign committees surpassed the teachers' unions as the largest political donors in the state, said Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform. "They have reshaped the political landscape," she said.

But politics has not always gone smoothly for the union. It gave almost $1.8 million to the successful 2002 and 2006 gubernatorial campaigns of Rod R. Blagojevich, who as governor issued executive orders allowing the union to organize 20,000 home health care workers and about 50,000 child care workers. Once organized, the workers negotiated big increases in wages and health care benefits.

The close ties to Mr. Blagojevich would come to haunt the union, however, when federal authorities arrested Mr. Blagojevich and charged him with corruption in December 2008, prompting his impeachment. Mr. Blagojevich, according to federal court records, sought a high-paying union job and discussed with a union official who should replace Mr. Obama in the Senate.

Union leaders have denied wrongdoing, and Mr. Balanoff said last year that he was cooperating with the federal investigation.

But the scandal has undercut the union's efforts to portray itself as an ally of reformers in local politics. In an interview last week, Mr. Balanoff said that he remained unfazed.

"I don't think it has hurt us too much," he said. "We continue to be a strong voice. We play a huge role in this city in pulling together the broader progressive forces."

The union spent almost $2.5 million in the 2007 City Council election to unseat several of Mayor Richard M. Daley's allies. Anger over the mayor's support for the expansion plans of the nonunionized Wal-Mart spurred that spending.

In addition to campaign cash, organized labor can also deploy members onto the streets at election time to help endorsed candidates. The service employees union's campaign troops have filled the void left by the legions of public workers who once helped campaigns in the precincts in order to preserve their jobs and earn promotions. But federal corruption investigations into city, county and state hiring have effectively ended the practice of rewarding campaign workers with jobs.

The service employees union and its labor allies have not been able to win approval of legislation requiring that large retailers like Wal-Mart pay higher wages. Yet, the threat of more S.E.I.U. spending in next year's city election has prevented Wal-Mart's further expansion into the city.

"Politically, I would tell my colleagues not to risk incurring the wrath of organized labor," said Alderman Edward Burke (14th Ward), chairman of the City Council finance committee.

Alderman Howard Brookins Jr. (21st) was among the few incumbents who survived an S.E.I.U.-financed challenge in 2007. He was singled out because he supported plans for a new Wal-Mart in his South Side constituency.

"The only people who have the money and the troops are the unions," Mr. Brookins said.

In 2008, the service employees union switched its focus to helping Mr. Obama become president. Nationwide, it spent tens of millions of dollars for him.

The euphoria of that victory quickly dissipated, in great part because the new president has been unable to win approval of legislation that would ease unionization.

"A lot of my people, myself included, have been very disappointed by the way things have gone in the past year," Mr. Balanoff said.

The S.E.I.U. is now concentrating on the general election campaigns for Mr. Quinn, Mr. Giannoulias and Ms. Preckwinkle. As state treasurer, Mr. Giannoulias intervened to help avert the closing of the Hartmarx clothing factory in Des Plaines, which employs S.E.I.U. garment workers. After supporting Mr. Stroger in 2006, the union backed Ms. Preckwinkle's challenge for the top county government job in the final weeks of the primary campaign.

Surveying the Chicago River and North Michigan Avenue from his 25th-floor office, Mr. Balanoff said the union's political involvement was about more than helping its own members. He said the S.E.I.U. had pushed for increases in the minimum wage and to expand health care, although its members already earn more than the minimum wage and have insurance.

"We take a broader social approach," he said. "We think we have established ourselves over the past 10 years as an independent political force."

Mr. Balanoff and Jerry Morrison, the union's top political operative in Illinois, ended the interview last week when it came time to head to another meeting -- with Mr. Quinn.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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