CHICAGO — Billionaire Democratic governor candidate J.B. Pritzker has portrayed himself as a champion of working families and received substantial support from organized labor, but he used nonunion workers to remodel his Gold Coast mansion.
Nonunion labor from three trades was hired to work on the yearslong, $25 million renovation of Pritzker’s 20,000-square-foot residence, according to a June 2007 email filed as part of a court dispute that arose between Pritzker and the general contractor.
“A note of caution,” wrote construction consultant Douglas Kaulas to Pritzker’s brother-in-law Thomas Muenster, who oversaw the renovation. “Now that the front yard is screened off and scaffold is going up, the jobsite has a much higher visibility. We’re perfectly legal with our permits, but we do have a non-union mason, demo contractor and roofer working. We are a little concerned that the union (business agents) may come to visit.”
For Democrats, the support of organized labor is key and using union workers can be a litmus test. Pritzker now joins the list of Illinois Democrats who championed labor on the public stage but employed nonunion workers when it came to their personal lives.
In 2002, then-congressional candidate Rahm Emanuel was dinged for using a nonunion firm to remodel his home. That same year, Rod Blagojevich’s use of nonunion workers to renovate his house became an issue in the Democratic governor primary campaign. And back in 1986, the United Automobile Workers refused to support Adlai E. Stevenson III for governor after finding out that he owned a Japanese-made pickup truck used at his farm.
Pritzker had “minimal involvement in the renovation work and any hiring decisions were made by those dealing with the day-to-day management of the renovation,” said his campaign spokeswoman, Galia Slayen.
“J.B. has been a supporter of unions throughout his life, and he is proud to have the support of the labor movement behind this campaign,” she said.
To be sure, the disclosure about Pritzker’s mansion renovation is unlikely to spur union households to vote for Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, who has been the chief antagonist of labor in Illinois.
The governor led a failed push for a variation of right-to-work zones that he said would boost the economy by allowing a town’s voters to decide whether local workers should be forced to join a union or pay associated dues. Private-sector unions contend such a move would gut wages at the expense of the working class.
The governor also championed a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case that undermines public employee unions nationwide, called the state’s largest public employee union “Af-Scammy” and vetoed a bill to expand benefits for paramedics and emergency medical technicians by defining them as firefighters in municipal collective bargaining agreements.
Indeed, several unions representing demolition workers, roofers and masons that have endorsed Pritzker for governor did not respond to calls and emails seeking comment on their candidate’s use of nonunion labor.
During the campaign, Pritzker has criticized Rauner as anti-worker and anti-union.
“The fact is, the labor movement is key to restoring the middle class in Illinois, and I’m committed to working together to protect our families,” said Pritzker in a news release last year when he picked up the support of more than a dozen unions. “With working families behind me, we can take back the governor’s office and make sure there’s an advocate for worker’s rights in Springfield.”
The work by nonunion labor was done at Pritzker’s mansion on North Astor Street that the family lives in. The family also owns a neighboring mansion and coach house.
Pritzker this month pledged to pay back $330,000 following a government watchdog report that alleged he wrongly received tax breaks and refunds in a “scheme to defraud” taxpayers. Cook County Inspector General Patrick Blanchard found that Pritzker’s wife asked a contractor in 2015 to remove the neighboring mansion’s five toilets to make the home uninhabitable so it could be reassessed at a lower value.
In his 2007 email update, Kaulas, the construction consultant, noted that the new roof slate, skylights and a final brick sample had been selected.
“It’s important to finish the exterior work in the three months allotted by the scaffold contract so we can resume our lower profile,” wrote Kaulas, who also told Pritzker’s brother-in-law that “we’re putting a priority” on finishing the exterior work to both hold down scaffold rental costs and “to limit our visibility.”
As part of that renovation project, Kaulas occasionally met with Muenster and J.B. Pritzker to give updates.
Kaulas told the Tribune last week that he did not recall writing the email and believed all the labor hired were union members. After part of his email to Pritzker’s brother-in-law was read to him, Kaulas said that using nonunion labor would have been a sensitive issue since it’s “common knowledge in Chicago” that such jobs require hiring union labor.
“Projects of a certain size and visibility are always under scrutiny by (union) business agents,” he said.
David Schulz, president of Harold O. Schulz Co., the original general contractor for the Pritzker mansion renovations, confirmed that the mason, demolition contractor and roofer were all nonunion. Schulz also said his company hires union carpenters.
“I think Doug (Kaulas) thought it would raise some red flags,” Schulz said of the email. “Maybe he was just looking out for the Pritzkers.”
Muenster, who oversaw the project for his sister and brother-in-law, could not be reached for comment.
Schulz was fired in March 2010, sparking a legal battle between him and the Pritzkers over a billing dispute and the pace of the work on Pritzker’s main house, a second mansion next door and a nearby coach house.
More than three years later, a jury sided with Schulz and his company. It ordered the Pritzker-backed Astor Street LLC — a Delaware-registered company that owns the mansions — to pay Schulz’s legal bills and give him nearly $1 million plus interest. What Pritzker ultimately paid could not be determined because both sides agreed to a confidential settlement.
Pritzker hired a new contractor to finish his home remodeling, and the family moved into the refurbished 1894 mansion in summer 2011. Work on the second mansion next door came to a halt, however.