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Collective Conscience

Jim Franczek is a management-side bargainer, but he never forgets what life is like for working men and women

Published in 2015 Illinois Super Lawyers magazine

By Nancy Shepherdson on January 12, 2015


Jim Franczek likes to kick off collective bargaining with great food: a catered meal, an ethnic feast or just the freshest doughnuts he can find.

Anything to get both sides to some commonalities.

This kind of attention to detail—plus a 43-year track record of successful labor negotiations—has involved Franczek in some of the largest and most complex collective bargaining in Illinois. He’s represented the city of Chicago, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and Cook County, as well as some of the city’s biggest hotel chains and transportation companies. Over the years, some of Chicago’s most divisive disagreements have landed on his doorstep, including litigation over the Chicago Public Schools closings, teacher contract negotiations, and the changes in work rules at McCormick Place involving multiple labor unions.

“In my opinion, the best thing that Mayor [Richard M.] Daley ever did for himself was to hire Jim Franczek for collective bargaining, because the most important thing is a deal that both parties can agree to,” says solo attorney Thomas Pleines, referring to Daley’s personal hiring of Franczek in 1994 as the city’s outside labor counsel. “Jim Franczek knows how to make that deal,” adds Pleines, who has met Franczek many times on the other side of the table while representing the Fraternal Order of Police. “It requires years of being in a position where people know you and trust you. Jim can get a lot done quickly in city government.”

To Franczek, who co-founded Franczek Radelet in 1994, collective bargaining among many interested players is a “multidimensional puzzle. Getting it to snap together is not easy, but once it does, it’s incredible.” He sees his job as helping parties understand the dimensions of their problem without imposing his own ideas. He nudges them toward their own solution, one that will make everyone as happy as possible. The 2012 CPS contract, for example, included a reduction in the number of pages required in teachers’ class plans, a seemingly simple matter that made it easier for the final contract to win approval.

How much of this was Franczek’s idea is unimportant to him. His website contains no bragging about successful negotiations. “I prefer staying in the background,” he says. “I don’t set the agenda; I try to facilitate coming to an agreement. I’m there to make other people look successful.” One key to that outcome is Franczek’s assessment of the personalities involved as negotiations begin. He says almost all people fall into one of three personality camps. One he calls the Mike Ditka type—people with strong beliefs who will argue for the sake of arguing. Then there are the collaborators, who want to get to an agreement at almost any price. And finally, there are the analytical compromisers—the true movers of any agreement.

“Almost every negotiation team has members of these three groups,” says Franczek. “It doesn’t take very long to figure out where people’s heads are. You can see it in the body language.” Unfortunately, one group sometimes predominates in a negotiation team. “If you have too much from the drums, you have to draw out the clarinet to make the music work. It’s a little bit like being the conductor of a large orchestra: Sometimes you have to yell, beg, cajole, laugh and be serious to make some music that sounds good.”

Gery Chico of Chico & Nunes—former board president of CPS and former chief of staff to Mayor Richard M. Daley, who just finished a term as chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education—has witnessed Franczek’s negotiating finesse firsthand. “Jim has this disarming ability to relate to the other side,” he recalls. “He’d just talk to them about our concerns and theirs and determine where the areas of agreement were, then go from there. I still call him for advice on tough negotiations.”

Franczek knew in grade school that he wanted to be an attorney. His father, also James Franczek—born almost immediately after his own parents had arrived in Harvey from Poland—insisted that law school was the ticket to a good life. The elder Franczek worked in the Cook County Clerk’s office for many years and was the elected Democratic committeeman of Thornton Township—one of the most powerful township organizations in the county at that time—but aspired to even more for his son.

“It was what he wanted for himself,” Franczek says, “but it turned out to be right for me.” His father also insisted that Franczek attend Notre Dame (“where all good Chicago Catholic South Siders went”) and the University of Chicago Law School.

Franczek was born in Hammond, Indiana, in 1946, the oldest of three boys, and grew up in south suburban Harvey. His mother, Eleanor, a Lithuanian immigrant, was a homemaker. By the time Franczek went off to South Bend, the youth rebellion of the 1960s was just around the corner. It seems to have bypassed Franczek. “I was an old man when I was young,” he says with a laugh.

He moved to Hyde Park in 1968 for law school and has lived there ever since. While at the University of Chicago, his eventual course was set. In his second year of law school, he met his wife-to-be, Deborah Chase, and received a Ford Fellowship to intern with the General Assembly over the summer. He was assigned to a group of state representatives that included Anthony Scariano and Harold Washington, who he says were at the forefront of labor law. And since there were far fewer professional staff then, Franczek not only got coffee and ran errands but did their research, which in those power-to-the-people days in a Democratic legislature was focused on increasing the rights of workers. He was immersed in labor law from day one.

“He appreciates what working men and women do every day, and that’s fairly rare,” says Tom Villanova, president of the Chicago & Cook County Building & Construction Trades Council.

After his Ford Fellowship, in his third year of law school, he served as a clerk for the Bill of Rights Committee for the Illinois Constitutional Convention. “I was present at the creation, an incredible opportunity for a law student,” he says. Having developed a parallel interest in politics by the end of law school, Franczek turned down numerous offers from big law firms and went to work in 1971 in the small firm of state Rep. Anthony Scariano, who “had earned a reputation as a maverick who consistently spoke up for clean government,” according to an old Chicagoan article from the time. While cutting his teeth practicing mostly management-side labor law, Franczek was inspired to work as chief aide on Scariano’s last campaign for re-election.

“Coming from my background, you’d expect me to end up on the labor side of the law, but that’s just not the way I was brought up,” explains Franczek. “I understood from an early age that it is management that makes things happen, and I wanted to make things happen.”

So Franczek started negotiating contracts at Scariano’s firm right out of law school, for both employers and union clients. His first solo was for the Argo High School district in southwest suburban Chicago and he credits “preparation, process and people” with the outcome. Especially preparation. He recalls the experience vividly more than 40 years later. “I was a nervous wreck to do this on my own, and I researched everything, including what other similar school districts were doing,” says Franczek. “I’m still motivated by my fear of failure. I still tend to overprepare for everything, for every detail that could come up.” The first negotiation resulted in a labor contract agreeable to both sides. And Franczek’s firm still represents Argo.

During that first negotiation, and subsequent ones, Franczek learned that the success or failure of any negotiation rests on whatever the parties believe is important, no matter how seemingly trivial. Once, early in his career, Franczek was negotiating a contract for another small school district when an enormous argument erupted over the quality of toilet paper in the school: “The teachers complained about rough one-ply,” Franczek remembers. “The district said that softer tissue would cost way too much. The teachers said they wouldn’t use as much of the high-quality stuff so it would cost about the same.” With Franczek’s help, all finally compromised on moderately priced two-ply and the contract was assured.

In 1974, Franczek moved to Vedder Price, a larger firm where he could combine private and public sector work. He focused exclusively on labor law, including a lot of work for the Cook County Board. A sweeping new labor law had been passed in Springfield, and Franczek was called upon to ease implementation of a new statutory system for labor-related issues including reporting and resolving unfair labor practices. Twenty years later, he and 11 other partners from several firms started what is now Franczek Radelet. The idea was to enjoy control over the process but also to create a firm devoted exclusively to labor and employment law. David Radelet, one of the 11, was younger than most. Franczek calls him “the bridge to the next generation.”

Franczek’s office, though in a corner, is surprisingly cramped. The relative ungrandness of the place is emphasized by a sign above a tiny café table that reads “Fancy Schmancy Conference Area.” Every available surface and most of the wall space is crammed with awards, photos and mementos of past agreements, although one stands out. It is a signed photo of Mayor Rahm Emanuel with Franczek, advising him to “Take a rest,” after a fire department negotiation they did together in early 2014.

Franczek first represented the city in 1987, during contract negotiations for Chicago Public Schools, when teachers went out on strike for 19 days during Harold Washington’s administration. Franzcek was also appointed by Mayor Jane Byrne to help choose a fire commissioner and work on a collective-bargaining ordinance. Then in 1994, he started working for the city again, for Chicago Public Schools. He has also been involved in first-responder contracts, the reworking of labor rules at The Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (usually called “McPier”), and last year’s school closings.

When Franczek negotiates construction contracts for the city, “Jim understands that there could be people laid off, families without incomes,” says union president Villanova. Perhaps as a result, Franczek negotiated a 10-year labor contract for city work eight years ago. “Before Jim came in, we were always out of whack, with two-year contracts that were always two or more years expired,” notes Villanova. Franczek helped implement a 10-year project labor agreement under which any construction for the public schools must be done by union workers and opportunities for apprenticeships for CPS students were significantly enhanced.

McPier required a multi-front campaign and subtle maneuvering. Trade shows were leaving town because negotiated union work rules made Chicago the “high-cost, high-hassle” provider, according to John Gates, who was chairman of the reform board of McPier at the time and is now CEO of Portaeco. He elaborates: “There was a huge group of interested parties—unions, hotels, service providers, associations—that all had to be persuaded to make concessions. It was Jim behind the scenes who had to negotiate with all these disgruntled parties and guide legislation through when negotiation proved inadequate. Everyone was against it, but it had to be done.” Gates also notes that Franczek’s name never appeared in the newspaper taking credit for the legislation.

David Johnson, once the chief labor negotiator for the city and now a partner at Franczek Radelet, points to “the many arrows in his quiver—negotiate, legislate, litigate”—as another reason why Franczek can find agreement more often than not. “With McPier, Jim thought the negotiations were not making headway, so he sought a legislative solution from the state that led to litigation” but ultimately allowed new work rules and cost savings for exhibitors. “He has a more multifaceted strategic view than anyone I have ever worked with,” says Johnson.

Sally Scott began as an associate when Franczek Radelet opened its doors and has since become a partner. “We share a common vision of how we approach client situations,” she says of Franczek. Her most prominent role to date has been as head of the litigation team in four cases involving the Chicago school closings litigation brought by teachers and parents. All but one of those suits have been dismissed.  “Our firm’s approach is to provide legal services in a practical way that gets them the results they need: a victory in court, a negotiated settlement, a new law or a solution that they may not have considered. Whatever they need: That’s Jim’s philosophy.”

The firm is now in the midst of a massive remodeling that will give all of its employees, partners and associates alike, a fairly equal amount of space. There will also be more casual, communal spaces favored by younger attorneys. “We’re all in this together and rent is expensive,” says Scott.

Franczek calls himself “a very disciplined person. I don’t display ups and downs in public.” He seems to be tightly wound but  conveys a sense of intense concentration on the matter at hand. But he also admits he tries to do “a trillion things.” He says the supportiveness of his wife of 43 years, Debbie, is key to his ability to get things done. His assistant, Mary Prenta, has been around for 35 years, keeping his myriad commitments in order.

Nearing 69, Franczek intends no slack in the 1,800 hours he bills every year. But he does see himself “evolving” into even more of a rainmaker with large employers to ensure that his firm survives for at least another 20 years. “I have an enormous responsibility to my young colleagues,” he says, “to give them a future.”

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