This article was first posted by Labor Notes.
For the first time in four decades as a union, 28,000 Illinois state workers could be going on strike, facing down a Republican governor who campaigned on the promise to force a showdown with the union.
In a 20-day vote that ended February 19, members from the 70 locals that comprise AFSCME Council 31 voted in favor of strike authorization.
“Eighty-one percent of members voted yes to give the bargaining committee the authority to call a strike,” said Roberta Lynch, executive director of Council 31, at a press conference announcing the results.
The vote is an escalation in the two-year conflict between the state’s largest union and Governor Bruce Rauner.
Council 31’s contract expired June 30, 2015. In January 2016 Rauner declared the union and state at impasse. Since then he has refused to bargain.
On the campaign trail, Rauner cited President Ronald Reagan’s blow to the Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) as inspiration for how to deal with the state’s unionized workforce. Reagan permanently replaced 11,000 striking federal employees in 1981, in one of the most dramatic government acts of union-busting in U.S. history.
“I may have to take a strike and shut down the government for a few weeks and kind of redo everybody’s contract,” Rauner told an audience of enthusiastic Republicans in a video that surfaced during his 2014 campaign. “I will do it proudly.”
His administration has also floated the possibility of deploying the Illinois National Guard to replace strikers.
“Have a heart”
Now the union faces the challenge of making good on its threat of an open-ended strike, despite its limited history of militant action and lack of a strike fund. The AFSCME international has said it will help out financially in the event of a strike.
Council 31 has run strikes in counties and in specific industries, but has no history of statewide strikes.
Members of the Alliance for Community Services—a coalition of state workers, community members, and disability rights activists — didn’t wait for an authorization vote before beginning to prepare.
“We’ve been out there doing strike training,” said Local 2858 Vice President Elijah Edwards. “We’re inviting people from other unions who have actually done strikes, like Chicago Teacher activists and ARISE Chicago, to come and talk.”
In a Valentine’s Day protest, members delivered handmade valentines to the governor asking him to “have a heart,” reverse the cuts to public services, and bargain with the union.
Budget held hostage
This showdown was foreshadowed in a 2012 op-ed Rauner penned for the Chicago Tribune. The future governor claimed that Illinois was “in a long-term death spiral” due to “government employee labor unions.”
A venture capitalist and alleged billionaire, Rauner ran on a platform of class war — promising to slash the state budget, gut workers’ pensions, and bust unions.
His campaign attracted a small circle of very wealthy supporters. “Never before in modern Illinois politics had so few people provided so much of the money for a campaign,” the New York Times reported.
Even after Rauner took office in 2015, he continued to raise millions in campaign contributions. His former aides created a statewide super PAC to target lawmakers who weren’t on board with his agenda.
Illinois’s constitution requires the governor to present the legislature a balanced budget. Rauner responded to the state’s fiscal crisis by offering a budget that would slash billions by pushing state workers off their defined-benefit pension plan and onto a 401(k).
Democrats voted it down. In response, Rauner has held the state budget hostage.
“Scott Walker on steroids”
For a year and a half now, Illinois has been without a full operating budget. Typically that would mean a government shutdown, but a series of court orders and stopgap compromises have extended limited funding to some services.
Some institutions, like state universities, are continuing to operate while receiving no money from the state. Illinois’s unpaid bills are piling up, and its credit rating has been downgraded to the lowest in the country.
“We had a mild version of furloughs in 2016,” said Linda Loew, recording secretary for Local 1989 at Northeastern Illinois University. “All the university campuses had to go into their reserves to provide assistance to students and pay for operational expenses. This reduced the credit standing of the university to just above junk status.
“Now there are meetings all over campus to try and figure out what we can do to keep the doors open another semester.”
While state agencies scramble to find ways to keep providing basic services to the public, conservatives have praised Rauner’s attack as “Scott Walker on steroids.”
Local 2858 President Diane Stokes agrees with the comparison. “He is trying to break the Democratic majority and reduce their power in the state, turn a blue state red,” she said, “like what happened in Wisconsin, the birthplace of AFSCME.”
In the midst of this showdown between the governor and the legislature, Council 31 has been trying to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement.
The same week that bargaining was set to begin, the governor issued an executive order directing state agencies to stop collecting union “fair-share” fees from state workers.
These are fees that non-members must pay in lieu of full membership to compensate for the benefits they receive from union representation. Courts have so far refused to uphold the order, and state agencies have refused to carry it out.
“The governor came to the table in the first week of negotiating and attacked the union, before we could even talk about his proposals and changes in the contract,” said Edwards, who is a member of the union’s 250-person bargaining committee.
Rauner offered 200 proposals that workers say would open the door for massive privatization, impose a four-year freeze on wages, and increase their health care premiums by 100 percent — equal to a $10,000 yearly pay cut for the average state worker.
“His proposals were draconian,” Edwards said. “He wanted to increase the rights of management, eliminate just cause, allow layoffs without callback rights, and allow privatization and subcontracting of public employee work to any vendor he or his designated individual chose without even determining if it is economically feasible for the state.”
The governor claimed these concessions were necessary because the government had racked up $130 billion in unfunded liabilities after decades of shortchanging its pension obligations.
If ratified, Rauner’s proposals would almost certainly spread to other state employees, including AFSCME members at state universities. Another 9,000 members were exempted from the strike vote because they work in security jobs at the departments of corrections and juvenile justice.
“Any compromise on health care will impact all of us greatly,” said Loew, whose local is currently in negotiations. “Historically, what the state gets is what the university workers get.”
Forced into action
Expecting the governor to push for a strike, Council 31 lobbied for a temporary “no strike, no lockout” law that would require stalled negotiations to enter a mediation process ending in binding arbitration.
A similar process applies to workers in Illinois agencies designated “essential services,” such as firefighters and police officers.
Twice the legislature passed the AFSCME-backed bill — and twice Rauner vetoed it. The governor was able to peel away enough Democrats to avoid a veto override.
Meanwhile at the bargaining table, the governor showed no interest in negotiating. “When we presented our counterproposals, they actually pushed them aside and then read from a prepared statement declaring impasse,” said Edwards.
An administrative law judge declared that a full impasse had not yet been reached, and that the governor must return to the table. But Rauner appealed to the state’s Labor Board, made up entirely of appointees. The board declared that this was an impasse after all, paving the way for the governor to impose his agenda.
AFSCME is appealing the decision in state court. A judge has issued a temporary stay that bars the governor from imposing concessions.
Before announcing the strike vote, the union published a public letter to the governor, agreeing to some concessions on wages and health insurance as a “framework for a contract settlement” if he would resume negotiations. Rauner refused the offer.
“The union did everything in its power to avert a strike,” said Loew.
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Chris Brooks is a labor journalist and organizer. He currently works as the field director at the NewsGuild of New York.