20,000 jobs or 25,000 jobs, take your pick
20,000 jobs or 25,000 jobs, take your pick Credit: John H. White/Sun-Times

Three days before Thanksgiving, I received a press release from Northwestern University proclaiming a great day in the school’s history: “Mayor Rahm Emanuel to speak on campus.”

The announcement heralded the mayor’s visit this week to share his expertise in all sorts of things, including “economic development.” Coincidentally, I saw this release the same day the city sent layoff notices to the 34 employees in the city’s water call center. Just the mayor’s way of saying: enjoy your holiday, workers. More on that in a moment.

The NU press release went on to say that the mayor would be explaining how he teamed up with the university to screw the preservationists and plow over Prentice Hospital. No, just teasing—though that would be an interesting talk.

Instead, the press release said that in his first year in office the mayor “secured more than 20,000 private-sector jobs for residents across the city.”

That’s a very impressive-sounding claim until you realize that there’s no substantive link between anything the mayor does and these jobs, other than his habit of taking credit for them. Mayor Emanuel might as well send out a press release saying that the sun has risen in the east every day since he took office—an equally accurate though irrelevant correlation.

This job claim is all part of the mayor’s ongoing propaganda campaign—a brilliant one, I might add—in which he choreographs a press conference whenever any decent-size private company either comes to Chicago or expands its local workforce. It’s always a command performance for the CEO, who generally stands next to Emanuel and says how much he loves Chicago and the mayor. After which the press office sends out a release lauding the CEO, praising the mayor, and closing with a running tabulation that goes like the October 23 announcement that Nokia would shift some positions here: “Since taking office, the mayor has stood with more than 60 companies that have announced nearly 25,000 jobs coming to Chicago.”

Which is about 5,000 more than the NU press release claimed, so you can see no one’s keeping a precise score.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy when Nokia—or any big company—comes to Chicago, just as long as it doesn’t need taxpayer handouts to do it. But I think the mayor’s political operation obscures the complicated issues of economic development and job creation in a city where the unemployment rate is close to 10 percent—and twice that in many neighborhoods.

Which brings us back to the water call center employees. Those are the people you talk to when you call the city to ask questions about your water bill. As I wrote a few weeks back, the mayor is farming out the water call operation to NTT Data, a firm based in Japan. NTT will hire part-time workers who apparently get no health or pension benefits and have no obligation to live in Chicago, whereas city employees, including the current water call crew, have residency requirements. The mayor claims the move will save taxpayers $100,000 a year.

In other words, Emanuel will essentially take money that’s been going to pay people who live in Chatham, South Shore, and other local communities and send it to Japan. All in the name of helping the taxpayer.

“We got the letter on Tuesday, just before Thanksgiving,” says Greg Turner, a Woodlawn resident who’s worked in the water call center for 12 years. “It said you will be laid off effective January 4. It was really mind-boggling.”

When I wrote about the call center workers earlier this month, a City Hall press aide told me that the city had actually done a study showing the average water bill caller was on the line 20 minutes before someone answered. But NTT guaranteed to answer calls in a minute and a half.

Furthermore, NTT wasn’t going to lean on the excuse that they were understaffed from workers taking sick days. They were going to provide the same fast response times even if their whole staff came down with whooping cough.

Translation: Hey, NTT workers—you better never, ever get sick. But if you do, cover your mouth when you cough.

The spokesman added that the call center workers will “have a chance” to move into other unfilled city jobs, though there are no guarantees.

Here’s an idea: For better, faster service, let’s outsource the mayor’s press office. Give their jobs to people at less pay and no benefits who have to promise to get back to reporters within two minutes.

I don’t really mean this. I don’t want anyone to lose his or her job in this tough economy. Well, except for maybe Mayor Emanuel. And a few dozen aldermen. And, while we’re at it, some nearby Republican governors.

My point is that we have different attitudes about creating or retaining jobs when they’re filled with residents who come from the west and the south sides.

The mayor had promised the city’s black aldermen that he wouldn’t fire the water call workers. One of them, Roderick Sawyer of the Sixth Ward, says he intends to hold the mayor to his word. “I heard about it right before the holidays,” says Sawyer. “I am upset that it has come to this. I’m hoping that they will do what they promised and secure positions for these displaced workers. I will be looking into this in detail.”

In the meantime, the real problem of economic development in Chicago is that the new jobs the mayor brags about are not being filled by people who live in the communities that need them the most. Meanwhile, the mayor replaces union jobs that bring much-needed money to hard-hit communities with low-wage, part-time ones.

I’d love to hear the mayor give a speech explaining how this is a good economic development strategy for Chicago.