Billionaire Gov. Bruce Rauner Declares War on Illinois State Unions Through Executive Order
Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner launched the first of his promised attacks on the state’s labor unions on Monday with an executive order intended to end the legal requirement for Illinois state workers who are not members of unions to pay agency or “fair share” fees to cover the costs to the union of bargaining on their behalf. The action is a shot across the bow by a governor who clearly intends to go to war with organized labor in Illinois.
Currently, all unionized state employees must pay an agency fee. According to the governor, 6,500 workers are now paying this fee — what he dubs an “unfair share” — to one of the several unions representing a significant share of the state’s workforce, which numbers almost 78,000. Until the courts rule on his executive order, Rauner said the dues of the 6,500 will be held in escrow.
Anti-union strategists obviously hope that more workers will choose to forego paying dues if they can, but some unions, including the largest public sector union in the state, AFSCME Council 31 (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees), say they have already started an escalated plan of internal organizing to strengthen support for the union and worker solidarity.
“Bruce Rauner’s scheme to strip the rights of state workers and weaken their unions by executive order is a blatantly illegal abuse of power,” AFSCME Council 31 director Roberta Lynch said. “Perhaps as a private equity CEO Rauner was accustomed to ignoring legal and ethical standards, but Illinois is still a democracy and its laws have meaning. … Our union and all organized labor will stand together with those who believe in democracy to overturn Bruce Rauner’s illegal action and restore the integrity of the rule of law.”
Rauner not only chose to make the attack on organized labor one of his earliest actions, but also chose to bypass the state legislature, where Democrats control both houses and could have been expected to reject this public sector equivalent of the “right-to-work” laws for private sector workers.
Rauner also announced in his State of the State address last week that he will encourage local governments to pass such right-to-work laws, referring to them as “employee empowerment zones,” which permit workers to refuse to pay any fee to unions that, by federal law, are required to represent them if the union is the recognized bargaining agent in the workplace.
The governor also appears anxious to head off any union moves to challenge his executive order in court by hiring a legal team, led by a former federal prosecutor, Dan Webb, that will ask the Illinois Supreme Court to make a “declaratory judgment” that his actions are constitutional.
Rauner’s case is built on the 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court last year in the case of Harris v. Quinn that, in the case of home health employees in Illinois, their union — a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) — could not collect “fair share” payments largely because they were not conventional employees.
Rauner argues that the same argument should apply to all state workers.
“Forced union dues are a critical cog in the corrupt bargain that is crushing taxpayers,” he said in a statement. “Government union bargaining and government union political activity are inexorably linked. An employee who is forced to pay unfair share dues is being forced to fun political activity with which they disagree,” a violation of First Amendment free speech rights.
Despite his “free speech” argument, however, quite disingenuous, since his ultimate goal — as he made clear in his State of the State address — is to prohibit public employees from participating in an organized fashion in politics under any circumstance.
Legal observers expect that the Supreme Court will take up in its next term another case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, which attempts to prohibit such agency fees for public employees under all circumstances, thus overturning the landmark Abood v. Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court ruled that fair share payments could be required.
While Rauner and supporters shroud their campaign in appeals to First Amendment rights of freedom of association and freedom of speech, their ultimate goal is to undermine all associations of workers at work and to limit their effective right to free speech both at work and in the political sphere.
The majority of the Supreme Court that supported the anti-fair share case in Harris v. Quinn seemed anxious to banish fair share support for public employee unions, but appeared to be waiting for a more clear-cut case. Now Rauner may be in a race with Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association to be that definitive blow to public sector unions — a blow from which unions can survive, but most likely only with great effort.
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.