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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Jan 22, 2013, 4:25 pm

Laid-Off O’Hare Workers Call for Rebid After Irregularities Surface

BY Kari Lydersen

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Union leaders say the city should rebid the airport janitorial contract that led to layoffs right before the holidays. (Photo by Kari Lydersen)  

Jermaine Sample’s mother worked at Swissotel in downtown Chicago for 10 years, stocking mini-bars and performing other maintenance tasks. Then, Samples says, “She was laid off, just like that, right before Christmas. … They gave her a $1,000 check, a packet about unemployment and an invitation to the Christmas party.“

That was in late 2010. Since then she has struggled to find a job, and when her unemployment benefits were about to run out, Samples, 25, moved back in.

“My father isn’t real reliable, so of course I [became] the breadwinner of the house,” says Samples.

Samples was able to help support his mother and his own son thanks to his job as a janitor working the night shift at O’Hare International Airport, a position he’d held for seven years. Then, just before Thanksgiving of 2012, Samples had a sense of déjà vu. Just like his mother, he found out he would be laid off right before Christmas. That was because the city of Chicago decided not to renew the contract of Scrub, Inc., the company that employed Samples and about 350 other janitors represented by the union SEIU Local 1. Instead, Chicago officials signed a contract with United Maintenance Co. Inc., which had offered to do the work for $11 million (or about 10 percent) cheaper than Scrub, Inc.

On Jan. 15, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that United Maintenance head Richard Simon had apparently violated city bidding requirements by failing to disclose that he had actually sold more than half of the janitorial firm to an investment company. 

After the revelation, SEIU Local 1 held a press conference calling on the city to rebid the contract, with a press release saying: “United Maintenance has violated the city’s terms for contractors by neglecting to disclose its ownership until after acquiring the lucrative city contract.” (Previously media had also reported alleged ties between Simon and organized crime figures.

The Sun-Times explained:

Richard Simon was listed as United Maintenance Co. Inc.’s 100 percent owner when the company began bidding for the lucrative contract to clean O’Hare Airport in September 2011. Simon sold a 50 percent interest in the firm in December 2011 but didn’t file a new disclosure statement with the city reflecting the change until last month. The 50 percent share in United was bought by a downtown firm called Invision Capital I LP, records show. It’s not known publicly who owns Invision. The firm’s executives have told the city no one holds an ownership stake greater than 7.5 percent — the threshold for disclosing ownership interests under city purchasing rules. 

As Working In These Times has reported, in late 2012 the janitors and union leaders and supporters held numerous vigils, pickets, protests and press conferences pleading with Mayor Rahm Emanuel and city council to reconsider their decision. Among other things, they sang “Happy Birthday” to the mayor outside his home and congregated outside the city’s Christmas market with a sign in lights calling the mayor a “job killer.”

“I was stressed, destroyed just trying to see how I could work things out,” Samples told Working In These Times. “We tried not to turn to other means of making money. But when you get to that last option, everything gets thought about. People don’t understand if they aren’t put in this position – you can’t judge.”

But, Samples, added, “I always have faith, I’m always optimistic.” 

And shortly after his last day of work at O’Hare, on Dec. 15, 2012, he did have a stroke of luck. On Christmas morning while waiting to pick up his son, he ran into an acquaintance with whom he would always exchange greetings. The man had heard Samples was out of work, and told him that his own employer was hiring.  He asked if Samples had a criminal record and if he had a valid driver’s license. No and yes, Samples said.

“So on the 26th I woke up at 6:30, went over there with the guy, with an application and resume in a folder, looking presentable,” Samples tells Working In These Times. He was hired on the spot to stock vending machines at hospitals and other institutions for $12.50 an hour, with no benefits or insurance, significantly less than the $15.45 an hour with benefits he made at O’Hare.

“It’s nothing like what I was making, but you have to be grateful for what you have,” said Samples.

Of his O’Hare co-workers, he says, “They become part of you, you develop a bond–like family. It’s crazy just to know all these people are laid off, people I know and care about.”

Many of the SEIU Local 1 janitors, including Samples, applied for jobs with United Maintenance, even though most of them would take wage cuts of more than $3 per hour and lose benefits even if they were hired.

But United Maintenance spokesman Steve Patterson told Working In These Times in December that there were no applications on file for Samples or Mildred Rueda, both frequent speakers at union events and rallies.

“(United Maintenance officials) saw them in the media,” said SEIU Local 1 spokesperson Izabela Miltko. “We think that’s why their applications ‘got lost.’”

Patterson told Working In These Times that about 100 former Scrub, Inc. janitors had been hired. But Miltko said the union has more recently determined that only 38 of the 350 Scrub, Inc. workers were hired by United Maintenance. She said the union is carrying out a comprehensive study to find out how the laid-off workers are faring.

In December there were numerous media reports that SEIU’s state council authorized $500,000 for Local 1 in Chicago to spend in its campaign blaming Emanuel for the layoffs. Miltko, who says the real amount was a relatively standard $250,000, indicated she thought that the story had been pitched by a supporter of the city administration to try to make the union look bad, perhaps feeding into anti-union stereotypes. For instance, a Crain’s Chicago Business article titled “Union Launches $500,000 Anti-Rahm Blitz” reported that a document approved by the union called Mayor Emanuel "the national poster child for Neo-Liberals who are hell-bent on adopting regressive policies.”

Samples said his “eyes were opened” by the experience of fighting for his rights as part of a union. And like Miltko, he believes that United Maintenance chose not to hire him in part because of his outspokenness. Now he is struggling to make ends meet with his lower wages, and he prays he and his son will stay healthy since they have no medical insurance. But he is looking on the bright side.

“It’s a big world,” he said. “You’ve got to really be optimistic, you can’t let one thing get you down.”

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Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based reporter, author and journalism professor at Medill at Northwestern University, where she is fellowship director of the Social Justice News Nexus. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago's 99 Percent., Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gun and Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.

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