CHICAGO - Hundreds of O'Hare Airport workers slated to lose their jobs just before Christmas marched through City Hall today, chanting and waving banners, flags and signs.
The janitors and window washers, holding their brooms, mops and squeegees up high, shouted "Shame Emanuel" as they entered City Hall and made their way up five flights of stairs to Mayor Rahm Emanuel's fifth floor office.
They chanted in the English, Spanish and Polish languages. The crowd of janitors forming outside City Hall this morning looked almost like a gathering of language students with Polish janitors and Latina cleaning women teaching one another how to shout out slogans in each other's language and with African American union members teaching the chants in English.
More than 300 janitors at O'Hare Airport may lose their jobs right before Christmas this year because Mayor Rahm Emanuel awarded a key public contract to a cleaning contractor with a history of destroying good jobs.
The company, United Maintenance, has already said it will hire new workers and pay lower wages lower than those earned by the current airport workers who are represented by Local 1 of the Service Employees International Union.
SEIU janitors at the airport currently have a union contract, family healthcare and what the union describes as a "living wage," but they will lose their jobs after years of service to the city of Chicago and be forced onto the unemployment lines.
Many are expected to have to apply for food stamps and other help while their lower-paid replacements likely will also have to rely on public assistance to make ends meet. "Policies like this contribute to poverty in our communities and strike a blow to Chicago's dwindling middle class," said Laura Garza, Local 1's secretary- treasurer to the chanting crowd outside the mayor's office. "And this type of policy strikes a blow to Chicago's middle class," she added.
"We don't know how to pay the bills, how we will put food on the table. We won't be able to celebrate Christmas this year with our kids," said Manuel Nieves, a janitor at O'Hare for seven years.
The airport workers say they see a big difference between the policies of Chicago's mayor, who was once President Obama's chief of staff in Washington, and newly re-elected President Obama himself.
"Obama is always here for the working people," said Nieves, "but our mayor's ultimate purpose is to help the rich, not us."
"I just want to sit and cry," said Alina, a janitor at the airport for 19 years. "Where will I find money to support my family? What kind of a person cuts 300 jobs right before Christmas?"
"Our mayor says one thing and does another," said SEIU Local 1 President Tom Balanoff. "Hundreds of families would be forced into poverty and onto taxpayer-funded assistance programs if this decision stands. It's not what workers expect from a Democratic mayor of Chicago who was President Barack Obama's right hand in Washington."
Unions in Chicago note that the mayor has already eliminated many city jobs and outsourced others to companies that dramatically reduce wages and benefits. This includes a recent cleaning contract at police stations and other city buildings where dozens of janitors lost their jobs.
Photo: John Wojcik/PW