Mayor Richard J. Daley marches with members of the janitors' union in 1957. But over the last two decades, mayors Richard M. Daley and Rahm Emanuel have privatized or cut hundreds of custodial jobs. Credit: SUN-TIMES PRINT COLLECTION

It’s been an up-and-down couple of weeks for Mayor Emanuel as he attempts to win back some of the black voters he alienated with closings, cuts, and firings in his first three years in office.

On the one hand, he announced that he was taking back his much-criticized decision to put President Obama’s name on the selective enrollment school he’s building on the north side—though he overlooked the fact that it wasn’t so much the name of the school as its Gold Coast location that irritated voters.

On the other hand, he also laid off 500 school janitors, many of whom are African-American.

It’s always something with this mayor.

The funny thing is that the mayor probably thought he was doing the politically smart thing this time around.

To understand why you need to know a few things about the world of Chicago Public Schools janitors.

Back in the days of Mayor Richard J. Daley, CPS employed its own janitors. They were paid a pretty decent wage with good benefits and a pension.

Then, in the 1990s, the second Mayor Daley—Richard M.—fired a bunch of CPS janitors and replaced them with hires from a private company, which received contracts worth millions of dollars while paying its janitors less money with fewer benefits.

Mayor Daley promised that he was saving precious taxpayer funds—an old refrain in the privatization game.

“We did the same work, but we don’t get the same money,” says a janitor I’ll call Billy, who works for a private firm. “Unfortunately, for me, I got hired right after they privatized the janitors.”

Over the years, CPS has reduced the number of its janitors through attrition. The board now employs about 800 and private companies about 1,800, according to union officials.

The former belong to SEIU Local 73, while the private-company janitors belong to SEIU Local One.

I know, everything in this town is so freaking complicated.

You might not think that belonging to different SEIU locals would matter much, but lately it does.

Among union activists, Local 73 is known as the mayor’s—well, let’s just say union activists aren’t too thrilled with Local 73.

That’s because the local decided to make love, not war, with Mayor Emanuel, donating $25,000 to the mayor’s reelection campaign just a few months ago.

As if the mayor’s campaign needs any more money.

Local 73’s leaders didn’t exactly make a big deal about the donation. They still haven’t called me back to talk about why they’ve been cozy with the mayor.

The company claimed to have invented a whole bunch of innovations that would enable them to get more work out of fewer workers. Always a risky proposition, if you ask me.

In fact, many of their members don’t even know they donated the money at all. If you don’t believe me, go up to any SEIU Local 73 member—pretty much any city traffic-control guard will do—and ask: Hey, did you know your union donated to Mayor Rahm? Then watch what happens.

In contrast, SEIU Local One has been a spunkier bunch. For starters, it raised holy hell when the mayor farmed out hundreds of janitorial jobs at O’Hare airport to a well-connected firm that isn’t unionized.

When it came to the latest janitorial contract at CPS, the mayor seemed determined not to get into another tussle with Local One. His handpicked school board signed a deal with Aramark, one of the largest service management companies in the country.

In exchange for $260 million, Aramark, based in Philadelphia, got a three-year deal to run most of the janitorial services in Chicago’s schools.

For the janitors’ unions, it was a good news/bad news sort of thing.

On a positive note, CPS officials made it clear that Aramark would be a union shop—hiring SEIU Local One’s members—unlike the cleaning company at O’Hare.

Yet Aramark would also be employing far fewer school janitors than the companies that previously had the contract—effectively slashing several hundred jobs. Aramark claimed to have invented a whole bunch of innovations that would enable them to get more work out of fewer workers.

Always a risky proposition, if you ask me.

Figuring that losing some workers was not as bad as losing all workers, SEIU Local One didn’t fight the cuts in a big way.

In February, CPS officials claimed the new janitorial contract would mean “cleaner schools,” “less work for principals,” and “up to $40 million in savings.”

That braggadocio would, of course, come back to haunt them when the Aramark era got off to a rocky start.

“They took janitors out of the school they knew and put them in schools they didn’t know,” Billy says. “We didn’t do the hard cleaning—getting into those corners—like we usually do. We’d do a little cleaning at one school and then they’d move us to another one. I don’t know what they were thinking.”

In late August, just before schools opened, the papers filled with reports from outraged school principals about mouse droppings, overflowing waste baskets, dirty halls, and other signs of filth.

And then last week, pink slips went out to 500 privatized janitors. So far Local 73’s CPS janitors have not been laid off.

Mayor Emanuel has now promised to crack down on Aramark to make sure they do a better job. But that’s going to be a tough challenge, since they’ll have fewer janitors to do the cleaning.

There’s also the larger issue of the impact the layoffs have on the families of the laid-off janitors, and the neighborhoods where those families live.

Think of it this way: hiring a janitor is more than just cleaning schools. It’s a way of directly investing in a community while providing a service that people need.

Boss Daley knew this. Apparently, his son forgot it. I’m not sure Mayor Emanuel ever learned it at all.