Employee Accuses Pritzker Group of Union-Busting

This Friday, Chicago resident Billy Dean is scheduled to work a long shift – from 9 a.m. until midnight – as a docent for Seadog Cruises, owned by Entertainment Cruises.

“I give people tours of the river, talk about architecture, history, kind of show off the city to people from all over the world.”

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He says tourists love him.

“You can check Trip Advisor if you don’t believe me,” he laughed.

But Dean says often he doesn’t get a real break and ends the shift exhausted. He doesn’t get health care benefits. After three years as a docent, he’s making less than the $15 minimum wage backed by Democratic nominee for governor J.B. Pritkzer.

The lack of insurance and power over scheduling galvanized Dean to try to get his fellow employees at Entertainment Cruises to unionize as part of the Chicago and Midwest Joint Board of Workers United, a division of SEIU.

But Dean says Seadog’s parent company, Entertainment Cruises, is trying to quash the effort.

Entertainment Cruises is owned by the Pritzker Group, Democratic nominee for governor J.B. Pritzker’s venture and private capital firm.

Dean says that makes Pritzker a hypocrite.

“If he’s going to be a businessman and politician who’s campaigning on a progressive platform, you’ve gotta prove that you’re progressive in your business as well,” Dean said Thursday. “He campaigns on unionizing. He says unions are a great thing, they’re what built the middle class. He wants to campaign on collective bargaining rights. And he’s actively union-busting at his own company.”

Dean said higher-ups have tried to spread rumors that employees will no longer be able to collect tips if they unionize, and a memo was posted in the break room and ticket booths that reads: “There’s only one way to guarantee that you can avoid the problems a union could possibly cause. Just SAY NO!”

Entertainment Cruises did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.

But Pritzker’s campaign says the Democrat – who has earned near universal endorsements from Illinois labor groups, including the AFL-CIO umbrella organization – “supports workers’ right to organize and he believes the process should be fair, open, and free of intimidation. JB also believes in workers’ rights to collectively bargain as an important tool toward raising wages.”

The statement from spokeswoman Galia Slayen goes on to distance Pritkzer from the Seadog situation: “JB has stepped away from Pritzker Group and is no longer involved in the management of the company,” Slayen said.

While Pritkzer stepped away from day-to-day involvement with the firm before he announced his bid for governor, he continues to profit from it.

Dean said he tried to approach Pritkzer about it personally at a Chicago Federation of Labor Event on Wednesday, but was generally rebuffed, with Pritkzer saying only that he’d heard of the situation and “you know my stance.”

Dean, who said he works two other jobs and is a comedian, said he doesn’t buy Pritzker’s attempt to skirt the issue.

“It’s him and his brother. They own the company. They can do what they want. They could help us out, or they could make this very hard on themselves,” he said.

Dean still predicts he’ll vote for Pritzker in November’s election, though he said he’s disappointed in the candidate.

“The way my mother put this was actually pretty adorable. She said it’s great that you’re doing this, I hope you don’t get fired, please don’t let (Gov. Bruce) Rauner win,” Dean said.

Rauner is facing troubles of his own, for his links to Sterigenics, a firm whose Willowbrook plant emits a chemical called ethylene oxide, which has been classified by the EPA as a carcinogen.

Rauner’s assets have been managed by what’s effectively a blind trust since he became governor, but the Republican continues to have stakes in his former private equity firm, GTCR, which purchased Sterigenics in 2011.

Rauner on Tuesday tried to downplay the hazard, saying that it is not a public health emergency.

“I think the federal governetn created a little bit of a panic inappropriately. Their communication was not very effective,” Rauner said. “This is not an Illinois problem. This is nationwide. This is used everywhere.” Rauner said the state EPA and public health departments are monitoring the risk.

But blowback from local residents concerned they’ve been exposed to a cancer-causing toxic chemical has been fierce since a Chicago Tribune report was published early this week.

Their fear and frustration was evident at a roughly four-hour town hall in Willowbrook on Wednesday night, with one woman saying, “Bruce Rauner has literally poisoned our community.”

Follow Amanda Vinicky on Twitter: @AmandaVinicky

Related stories:

The Battle for Union Members Begins

Mudslinging Begins as Democrats Look to Take Back Governor’s Mansion

Pritzker’s Offshore Holdings Under Fire in Final Governor’s Race Forum

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