Ill. Governor's Arrest Spotlights Union-Linked Group

Among the rewards Gov. Rod Blagojevich is alleged to have wanted in exchange for naming someone to president-elect Barack Obama's Senate seat was a high-paying job at Change To Win, an upstart labor federation with links to the Service Employees International Union. No deal emerged and both sides have denied wrongdoing.

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The scandal in Illinois is also casting a spotlight on a powerful labor union, the Service Employees International. According to the complaint, Governor Blagojevich pressed a union official for a well-paid job. In exchange, he allegedly offered to push the union's political agenda with President-elect Barack Obama. As NPR's Frank Langfitt reports, the union insists that it did nothing wrong.

FRANK LANGFITT: In the last day, all eyes in organized labor have focused on the Service Employees International, ever since U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald described conversation he says a union official had with the governor.

Mr. PATRICK FITZGERALD (U.S. Attorney, Northern District of Illinois): At one point, he proposed a three-way deal, that a cushy union job would be given to him at a higher rate of pay where he could make money. In exchange, he thought that the union might get benefits from the president-elect and therefore, the president-elect might get the candidate of his choice.

LANGFITT: Fitzgerald did not accuse the union of anything. And in a statement, the union said, quote, we have no reason to believe that SEIU or any SEIU official was involved in any wrongdoing. But it did not deny talking to the governor. In fact, according to the complaint, a union official listened to the governor's pitch and then agreed to, quote, put that flag up and see where it goes. The governor allegedly wanted a job as executive director of Change to Win. That's a labor group created several years ago by the Service Employees. Again, Patrick Fitzgerald.

Mr. FITZGERALD: So when you say you want a job for four years, you want a salary of about $300,000 to basically add no value, we're comfortable in the law that someone who schemes to do that has broken the law.

LANGFITT: Fitzgerald said the governor's scheme didn't go anywhere. One reason: someone already had the job he wanted. The complaint says the governor was offering to press the union's political agenda. Its top item is a controversial bill that would make it easier to form a union. President-elect Obama has frequently said he supports it.

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: That's why I was one of the leaders in fighting to pass the Employee Free Choice Act. That's why I'm fighting for it in the Senate. And that's why I will sign that bill when I become president of the United States of America.

LANGFITT: The complaint does not name the union official who met with the governor. Some news organizations have reported it was Andy Stern, the head of SEIU. But a source familiar with communications inside the union says it was Tom Balanoff. Balanoff runs the union's Local No. 1 in Chicago, and he's known Obama for years. Calls to Balanoff were not returned.

Professor NELSON LICHTENSTEIN (Director, Center for Work, Labor and Democracy, University of California, Santa Barbara): It'll be mildly embarrassing, but I don't think it will rise to a level of a kind of grand scandal.

LANGFITT: That's Nelson Lichtenstein. He's director of the Center for Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Lichtenstein said the governor's alleged scheme sounded ridiculous, and he doubted anyone at the union took it seriously.

Professor LICHTENSTEIN: The SEIU and other (unintelligible) unions have multiple points of contact with the Obama administration. They don't need an unpopular governor of Illinois to do it for them.

LANGFITT: That said, union opponents are already using this episode to attack organized labor and its political agenda. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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