The Service Employees International Union found itself last week in the uncomfortable position of being named in the criminal complaint against Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
For SEIU, the nation’s largest union, this is just another chapter in its longstanding, symbiotic relationship with the governor.
The complaint alleged that Blagojevich, a Democrat, was seeking an SEIU job that paid $250,000 to $300,000 annually after he left office. In discussions captured on wiretaps, Blagojevich considered the spot as part of an elaborate deal involving Barack Obama’s vacant Senate seat.
As it turns out, the governor might have had good reason to think SEIU owed him one.
Since the beginning of his administration, Blagojevich has doled out favorable actions to the union.
Blagojevich helped organize workers throughout the state, even over the objections of competing unions, the Wall Street Journal reported last week.
And labor-friendly legislation Blagojevich signed in his first year included laws making it easier for public employees to unionize and establishing potential bargaining units at public university campuses, the State Journal Register reported in 2003.
Their relationship went further back than that, the Chicago Tribune reported that same year:
As a congressman, Blagojevich was one of a handful of congressional Democrats who opposed legislation that federalized the jobs of airport security workers. When those jobs were private, SEIU represented many security screeners. After his vote in the House, Blagojevich last winter reported receiving a $250,000 donation from the service employees' union.
All told, the Blagojevich campaign received about $800,000 from SEIU.
The New York Times reported that the union was the top overall donor to Blagojevich’s 2006 re-election campaign, with donations in excess of $900,000, or about 5 percent of his total campaign funds.
In addition to signing pro-union legislation, the governor has issued two executive orders that boosted SEIU’s dues-paying membership.
In 2005, Blagojevich signed an unusual executive order giving day-care workers that receive state funds the right to unionize and bargain with state government as if they were state employees. It provided the SEIU with the chance to pick up about 50,000 new members.
And after the union endorsed Blagojevich in his first run for governor in 2002, the SEIU received a commitment from him to issue an executive order allowing 20,000 home health care workers to unionize.
Sure enough, just a month after taking office, Blagojevich announced the order to an audience of union members in Chicago. Blagojevich thanked the elated audience "for electing me governor," according to the Chicago Tribune’s account of the event.
Blagojevich also appointed Tom Balanoff, of SEIU, to the Illinois Health Facilities Planning Board, ProPublica confirmed.
Balanoff plays a role in the events captured in the criminal complaint against Blagojevich. According to the complaint, Blagojevich’s chief-of-staff and now co-defendant, John Harris, allegedly had suggested to an SEIU official that the union should help make the governor the president of Change to Win, a coalition of unions that includes SEIU. In the meantime, Blagojevich also wanted to know whether the SEIU could help his wife get a position at Change to Win. An internal union communication, reviewed and reported by the Wall Street Journal named Tom Balanoff, head of the union’s Illinois state council, as the "SEIU official."
In exchange, Blagojevich expected the union, which is also close to Obama, to request that the governor appoint Obama’s senior aide, Valerie Jarrett, to the Senate seat. Eventually, the complaint alleges, Blagojevich expected Obama’s administration to help SEIU with its legislative agenda.
Change to Win told the New York Times last week that it had no contact with Blagojevich or his staff about the Senate pick. The idea was "totally an invention of the governor," the group’s spokesman, Greg Denier, told the Times.
Still, ties between the governor and SEIU are undeniable.
"We can't have a better ally supporting us" than Blagojevich, Balanoff said back in 2003. "We elected a person who is going to be with us through thick and thin."