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Bruce Rauner’s vicious attack on Public Sector Unions and Public Employees

Mon, Apr 6, 2015

by Victor D. Devinatz
While Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner attacked public union officials during the Republican primaries, he downplayed his union animus in the general election in a state with a Democratic-dominated legislature. Shortly after his January 12, 2015 inauguration, during his February 4th “State of the State” address, Governor Rauner resumed his virulent attacks blaming all labor organizations, but particularly public sector unions, for the majority of Illinois’ fiscal problems.
To fix the state’s economy, Rauner has called for revising prevailing wage laws which he argues would lead to $160 million in annual savings for Illinois schools. Additionally, Rauner has proposed implementing a type of right-to-work (RTW) law that would prevent employees from having to join a union or tender fees to a labor organization for collective bargaining representation. Labeling his RTW plan as “employee empowerment zones,” the governor contends that such zones would attract jobs to Illinois’ economically distressed areas.
Rauner asserts that state worker salaries are exorbitant. For addressing this problem, the governor issued an executive order that would prevent public unions from collecting “fair share” fees from employees who are represented by labor organizations but are nonmembers. Rauner claims that such fees are used for political purposes allowing the unions to contribute to candidates who, when elected, give labor organizations whatever they want. Moreover, Rauner argues that nonmembers should not be forced to pay these fees which go to candidates who they might not politically support.
Various sources have responded to Rauner’s errant claims. One in particular, the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (IEPI), issued a report on February 10, entitled “A Turnaround or a Turn Aground? Fact Checking Governor Rauner’s First Claims.” The report’s author, Frank Manzo, the IEPI Policy Director, points out that in 2013 the average state employee earned $49,662 annually compared with the yearly average of $50,915 for employees working in either the private or non-profit sectors. Moreover, many public sector workers command a wage premium, such as “(p)olice officers, firefighters, prison employees, sanitation workers and transportation operators,” (p. 15) because they possess higher than average work-related injury rates when compared with private-sector employees. Finally, Illinois public-sector employees have attained higher educational levels than the state’s private-sector workers with 51.8 percent of governmental employees having earned at least a bachelor’s degree compared with 30.5 percent of Illinois’ private-sector counterparts. Thus, controlling for educational level, state public-sector employees earn 13.5% less on average than they would if employed in the private sector.
Responding to Rauner’s stated reasons for issuing an executive order eliminating the requirement of paying “fair share” fees, Manzo indicates that the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act (IPLRA) compels all employees to tender “fair share” fees for benefitting from collective bargaining representation. While Manzo notes that this law does not prevent unions which possess state collective bargaining agreements from donating to elected officials, it also does not require employees to financially support their labor organizations’ political activities. The IPLRA specifically states that “fair share” fees cannot be used for political purposes although the law does permit employees to make voluntary contributions to political activities. Finally, Manzo points out that preventing unions from donating to political candidates would restrict the workers’ right to freedom of speech, as currently understood in US political campaigns. He argues that if unions are banned from making contributions to political candidates then corporations and businesses should be prevented from making such donations as well.
Rauner’s executive order ran into problems days after its announcement. In the middle of February 2015, Leslie Munger, the state comptroller, upon advice from Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, stated that she would refuse to withhold “fair share” fees from union nonmembers and was unwilling to place this money in escrow until Rauner’s federal lawsuit alleging that such fees are unconstitutional is resolved. Madigan contended that the executive order was unconstitutional and that collective bargaining agreements must be honored. On March 5, 27 unions filed a lawsuit in St. Clair County to block Rauner’s executive order, arguing that it violated both labor contracts and Illinois labor law.
Rauner’s attack on public employee unions is a continuation of the attacks on such unions that have occurred and are continuing to occurr across the nation. In gearing up for the 2016 presidential contest, Governor Scott Walker, who took on Wisconsin’s public sector unions in 2011 and won, has even argued that if he can defeat these public unions and their 100,000 supporters, he can defeat the Islamic terrorists if elected to the US presidency.
While it is unclear how this issue will be resolved in Illinois, Rauner’s executive order is designed to undermine Illinois public employee unions in collective bargaining and in the political arena. Nevertheless, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) upheld a public union’s right to collect fees for representation; another case currently before the US Supreme Court, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, may overturn this earlier decision. Such an outcome would undoubtedly please Rauner.


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