Illinois state public employee unions suffered a serious strategic loss in their battle with anti-union Republican Governor Bruce Rauner Wednesday. The state House of Representatives narrowly failed to overturn Rauner’s veto of a bill that would have provided arbitration as an alternative to a strike or lockout if contract negotiations reach a stalemate.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 had promoted legislation that would have offered the alternative of arbitration in contract negotiations if bargaining reached an impasse and prohibited strikes and lockouts over the next four years in response to Rauner’s overt anti-union strategy. Rauner campaigned as an admirer of neighboring Gov. Scott Walker, who decimated public employee union power in Wisconsin in 2011. “I may have to take a strike and shut down the government a few weeks to redo everybody’s contract,” Rauner has stated.
Union strategists thought Rauner would declare an impasse in bargaining, force a strike by the union, then try to break the union. The governor gave them reason to worry. He has argued that enacting a budget would require stripping some rights of workers to bargain collectively, and his administration has contacted retirees about potential service as strikebreakers and begun preparations for mobilizing the National Guard.
The Senate had overturned Rauner’s veto nearly three weeks earlier, but in order to reach the required three-fifths majority, every House Democrat — or some Republican compensatory crossovers — needed to vote to reject the governor’s veto. With a plausible campaign of threats to use his large fortune to mount primary challenges against any defecting Republican, Rauner kept his party members in line, even those from downstate districts with large numbers of public employees who sometimes break from Republican orthodoxy when it comes to public workers’ interests.
But the deal essentially was lost when the supposedly all-powerful Speaker of the House, Michael Madigan, could not rally all of the 71 Democrats needed for victory: one Chicago Democrat was ostentatiously absent (and rumored to have struck a political deal with Rauner, according to Crain’s Chicago Business), another suburban Democrat voted present (but said he would have voted “yes” if his vote had been crucial), and yet another Democrat, not known previously for being a strong labor leftist, said that he objected to any law that limited the right to strike.
AFSCME, with 37,000 members in Illinois state goverment, is the largest of the state public employee unions (and over 90 percent of state workers are members of unions). But like most Illinois state workers, they have never gone on strike. (Several Teamster locals have already settled their contracts.) Even with a less hostile governor, bargaining would have been difficult: The state now faces a deficit of around $5 billion, and it has long fallen short in funding pensions and the constitutionally mandated support of education.
Rauner has proposed cuts in employee health care equivalent to about a 5 percent pay cut (along with other direct or indirect cuts in pay, such as reducing vacation and holidays). But his negotiators also are taking aim at the union as an institution, such as expanding the management rights clause, restricting the filing of grievances, eliminating all restrictions on subcontracting and privatization, eliminating union dues check-off, eliminating seniority rights during layoffs, eliminating the requirement to bargain about changes in working conditions and much more.
Rauner was furious when the arbitration bill passed, calling it the worst legislation in the state’s history, even though one survey shows that arbitration in Illinois has leaned somewhat more to management than to labor bargaining positions. It is an indication of how Rauner appears to approach these negotiations as an opportunity for a wholesale assault on unionism, not just a chance to win a marginal advantage.
“It is clear that Governor Rauner will stop at nothing to carry out his scorched-earth agenda against working people, their rights and well-being,” Illinois AFL-CIO president Michael Carrigan said.
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David Moberg, a former senior editor of In These Times, was on staff with the magazine from when it began publishing in 1976 until his passing in July 2022. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy.