“An error in judgment.” That was 44th Ward Alderperson Tom Tunney’s response to violating the indoor dining restrictions during the COVID-19 lockdown. Despite being in the worst pandemic in a century, and despite his Ann Sather Restaurant being far from essential, and despite facing a potentially $10,000 fine for his irresponsible callousness, and despite being an open ally of Mayor Lightfoot—including celebrating her handling of the pandemic—Tunney still thought it was a good idea to open his restaurant for indoor dining. After being caught, Tunney’s office delivered the usual boilerplate milquetoast mea culpa. It both downplayed the situation—promising that customers were sporadic, the staff social distanced, and everyone was wearing proper PPE—while also apologizing for his action. It was, in Tunney’s word, merely “an error in judgment.”
Of course, referring to it as “an error in judgment” implies that in most cases Tunney’s judgment as a restaurant owner is sound and compassionate. His indoor dining virus haven was just a fluke, created by the extraordinary circumstance of COVID-19. However, for workers in the restaurant industry, including his staff, who—less we forget—could not refuse to be part of Tunney’s rogue public health experiment, this is just Tom Tunney being Tom Tunney. Despite his liberal sheen, Tunney’s political career in Chicago has been ensuring that workers in the city, and restaurant workers specifically, are screwed over.
Tom Tunney began his career as his restaurant owner when he purchased Ann Sather Restaurant in 1981. At the time, he was only 24 years old. The original Ann Sather founded the diner in 1945. Tunney, having bought the business just after receiving a master’s degree from Cornell University School of Hotel and Restaurant Management, rapidly expanded operations. Ann Sather Restaurant went from a small diner owned and operated by its namesake founder to a three-restaurant chain that offered corporate and special events catering. The remarkable success that Tunney had with Ann Sather Restaurant is mostly the reason he was invited to join the board of the Illinois Restaurant Association in 2000.
For those unaware, the Illinois Restaurant Association is a trade group that represents the interests of restaurant owners. In that capacity, it has continuously fought against the rights of workers in the dining and hospitality industry. By sheer virtue of their opposition, these relentless attacks on restaurant workers have often spilled over to harm all workers across Illinois. Throughout its decades-long history, the organization has aggressive lobbied against increasing the minimum wage, for arcane subminimum wage system for tipped workers, and sought to weaken, eliminate, and prevent mandatory paid sick leave and predictive scheduling laws. Tunney only served on the organization’s board for one year, but it did not take long for him to internalize their legislative priorities.
In 2002, just months before the next aldermanic election, 44th Ward Alderperson Bernie Hansen retired. The retirement was a political power move. Hansen was a loyal ally of Mayor Richard M. Daley. By retiring just months before the election, Hansen provided Daley with an opportunity to appoint a successor. The successor would then be an incumbent and thus have a significant advantage against any progressive upstart in the upcoming election. Daley appointed Tom Tunney. A few months later, as expected, Tunney won the 2003 election. From that point on, with only small disagreements here-and-there, Tunney fulfilled his role as an aldermanic sycophant for Daley.
In 2006, one of the most divisive issues facing the city council was an ordinance that raised the minimum wage for “Big Box” retailers such as Walmart and Target. At the time, such “Big Box” stores were proliferating throughout Chicago, and along with them dirt-poor wages. Daley, dedicated to making Chicago a playground for global corporations, fiercely opposed the ordinance and promised to veto it. His opposition, though, did not matter. In a rare moment of council independence—primarily due to the intense lobbying from the Chicago Federation of Labor—a veto-proof majority of alderpersons voted for the ordinance. Still, Tunney voted against it. In a parliamentary tantrum, Daley made good on his promise and vetoed the ordinance. He then frantically pushed alderpersons to change their vote the second time around. Despite his efforts, the council passed the ordinance over his veto. Nevertheless, apparently wanting to join Daley in the embarrassment, Tunney joined the mayor and again voted against it.
Amazingly enough, in the few examples when Tunney did break with the mayor, it was because he found Daley too dedicated to organized labor. In 2003, workers at the Congress Plaza Hotel went on strike. Three years later, nearly no progress had been made. Unite Here Local 1, the union the represented the workers at the Congress, convinced alderpersons to introduce an ordinance that would have required hotels in the city to notify guest when workers went on strike. Mayor Daley gave lukewarm support for the ordinance. He signaled that he would not fight it if the council voted for it. Tunney did not care. He joined with the majority of alderpersons in voting against it. The ordinance failed in a 21-27 vote.
Tunney’s hostility to workers’ rights has continued through the Lightfoot administrations. During the 2019 budget hearings, there was a considerable push to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour, including ending the subminimum wage for tipped workers. During the debate, the One Fair Wage—an organization dedicated to abolishing the subminimum wage—published a report that showed that of all the major American cities, Chicago had the highest percentage of tipped works living in poverty. Additionally, much of the racial disparity in the restaurant industry is a result of the subminimum wage. The poverty rate for black restaurant workers in Chicago is 27%; it is only 18% for white workers. In response, 4th Ward Alderperson Sophia King introduced an ordinance that would have raised the city’s minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2021 and eliminated the subminimum wage. Of course, the Illinois Restaurant Association was fiercely opposed, and Tunney, as their lobbyist on the inside, joined in on the attack. Eventually, Lightfoot supported a compromised proposal. Chicago’s minimum wage was increased from its original $13 per hour to $15 per hour by July 2021, while the subminimum wage was raised from $6.40 to $8.40 per in that same time period. The ordinance passed with the budget in a 39-11 vote.
As before with Daley, Tunney is generally supportive of whatever Lightfoot wants, unless it comes to improving workplace protections. In May of this year, while the COVID-19 pandemic was raging along, the Chicago City Council passed an amendment to its Fair Workweek Ordinance that prevented employees from retaliating against workers who followed to stay at home order or advised to medically quarantine. Lightfoot strongly supported the ordinance. However, and quite incredibly, Tunney was one of five alderpersons who voted against it.
Considering Tunney’s opposition to protecting workers who are acting to prevent the spread of a deadly virus, it is not surprising that he would make his employees come to work while the rest of Chicago was on lockdown. If anything, it was completely predictable. After all, Tunney’s friends in the Illinois Restaurant Association are opponents of the lockdown. In October, they had a press conference to protest Governor Pritzer’s pandemic mitigation plan and have filed an amicus brief in support of a restaurant trying to overturn Governor Pritzer’s authority to shut down restaurants in the name of public health. Michigan’s residents have militias armed with assault rifles trying to overthrow their governor. Illinois residents have corporate lawyers armed with legal briefs.
The irony of all this is that while anti-lockdown sentiment is portrayed solely as a fringe Trumpian phenomenon, some of its most aggressive advocates are outspoken business-minded liberals. The caricature of gun-carrying rednecks screaming “freedom!” when people ask them to wear a mask has distracted people from the more subtle anti-lockdown ghouls in the Illinois Restaurant Association and their aldermanic lackeys like Tunney. They oppose the lockdowns not because of an abstract sense of “freedom” but for pedestrian reasons. Essentially, the lockdown creates uncertainty in their industry, and the means for combatting it forces them to show a modicum of decency to their workers. They would much rather risk the health of workers and the general public than deal with the potential loss in profits caused by that uncertainty.
To be clear, Tunney is not a heartless monster. His career as alderperson has included some noble efforts to get the city to take the HIV/AIDS epidemic more seriously. However, the critical difference HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 is that the HIV/AIDS pandemic did not interfere with his bottom line as a restaurant owner. For him, that bottom line comes first. If there is “an error of judgment” in Tunney’s defiance of Chicago’s lockdown order, I am sure that he and the many restaurant owners like him see it in getting caught, not in putting his workers and the public at risk. This means that the real “error of judgment” in the 44th Ward is with the voters. They continue to elect Tom Tunney despite his years of legislating on behalf of an industry instead of on behalf of them.