Only Organized Labor Can Save Illinois from Crisis

Tyler Zimmer January 9, 2017

The labor movement remains the most potent weapon working people in the state have to overturn austerity and increase investment in the public good. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Illi­nois is head­ing for a major cri­sis. It has been more than a year and a half since the state had an offi­cial bud­get that appro­pri­at­ed funds for basic ser­vices. And, as of this month, the cof­fers will dry up and a pub­lic sec­tor already on life-sup­port will quick­ly slip into crit­i­cal condition.

For the mil­lions of ordi­nary Illi­noisans who rely on the state’s net­work of pub­lic insti­tu­tions, the sit­u­a­tion is dire. For the state’s near-bil­lion­aire Repub­li­can gov­er­nor, how­ev­er, things appear to be going exact­ly as planned.

We’ve become a col­lec­tivist econ­o­my in Illi­nois,” Gov. Bruce Rauner recent­ly told the Chica­go Tri­bune. It’s crush­ing us. And no prob­lem is going to get fixed unless we bring more eco­nom­ic free­dom into the state. And I believe that very passionately.”

To be clear, when Rauner talks about a col­lec­tivist econ­o­my,” he’s attack­ing any­thing meant to serve the pub­lic or advance the com­mon good, which includes every­thing from pub­lic schools and uni­ver­si­ties, to health agen­cies, trans­porta­tion and so much more.

Rauner will be fur­ther embold­ened by the Repub­li­can vic­to­ries in Novem­ber — and this makes the need to build a unit­ed front against his agen­da all the more cru­cial. The only force capa­ble of build­ing that front and win­ning is orga­nized labor. The strat­e­gy of pas­sive­ly await­ing res­cue from the Democ­rats has led us into the mess we’re cur­rent­ly in.

Con­sid­er how things have gone in Spring­field for the past two years. Rauner has used his veto pow­er as gov­er­nor to pre­vent any full state bud­get from being passed until the Democ­rats, who have sub­stan­tial majori­ties in both cham­bers of the leg­is­la­ture, cave in and sup­port his so-called turn­around agen­da. That agen­da pro­pos­es across-the-board cuts to high­er edu­ca­tion spend­ing, severe cuts to oth­er state ser­vices such as med­ical care and a weak­en­ing — if not out­right elim­i­na­tion — of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights for pub­lic sec­tor work­ers in Illinois. 

The gov­er­nor is will­ing to bring the state to the brink of col­lapse to get his way. The result is that Illi­nois is the only state in the coun­try that hasn’t had a full bud­get for more than a year and a half. Grant­ed, Rauner and his allies real­ized that the chaos their hostage-tak­ing tac­tics are caus­ing might cost them votes, so they cyn­i­cal­ly allowed a shoe-string, stop-gap par­tial fund­ing bill to pass the leg­is­la­ture in order to cush­ion the impact of their blows until after the Novem­ber elec­tions. But at the end of last month, the stop-gap fund­ing bill ran out.

Still, much of dam­age caused by Rauner’s arro­gant fis­cal brinkman­ship is already done, so in a sense his onslaught has already borne fruit. This is espe­cial­ly true of Illinois’s once renowned sys­tem of high­er education.

As some­one who works at a state uni­ver­si­ty, I see the dam­age caused by Rauner’s poli­cies first hand. The attacks on high­er edu­ca­tion in the state rever­ber­ate through­out the halls and class­rooms at North­east­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty, where I teach. You can see it in the low morale among fac­ul­ty, in the mood among stu­dents in the class­room, in the gen­er­al sense of uncer­tain­ty about the future of the school. Stu­dent finan­cial aid is being threat­ened and uni­ver­si­ty com­put­er labs are board­ed up with signs that they are indef­i­nite­ly closed until the bud­get cri­sis is resolved. Count­less oth­er schools are in sim­i­lar straits.

The stop-gap fund­ing bill passed last sum­mer has post­poned the prospect of imme­di­ate destruc­tion, but the long-term prog­no­sis remains unclear at best — and apoc­a­lyp­tic at worst.

Rauner is not the sole culprit

How did we get into this mess? And, more impor­tant­ly, how do we get out of it?

Rauner’s goals and meth­ods are dis­as­trous. But it’s impor­tant to point out that the con­trast­ing pro­pos­als of Illi­nois Democ­rats also leave much to be desired. Democ­rats have agreed to mod­est cuts to high­er edu­ca­tion — noth­ing near Rauner’s demands for a 20 per­cent cut for the 2016 – 2017 fis­cal year and a 30 per­cent cut for the pre­vi­ous year, but still very dam­ag­ing on top of the decades of cuts that the sys­tem has already endured.

What’s more, the dys­func­tion­al régime in Spring­field has, for the most part, been steered by Democ­rats who have gov­erned by ran­sack­ing pen­sion funds for work­ers, doing dirty deals with pri­vate sec­tor financiers, and keep­ing in place one of the most regres­sive state tax sys­tems in the entire coun­try — all while under­fund­ing edu­ca­tion, tran­sit, health and more.

This statewide mess is the rea­son Rauner was able to sneak his way into the governor’s office in 2014. Like Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump, Rauner sold him­self as a pop­ulist insur­gent tak­ing on a caste of cor­rupt machine politi­cians. And, like Trump, Rauner eked out a vic­to­ry because of extreme­ly low turnout and wide­spread dis­af­fec­tion among vot­ers with the sta­tus quo.

So, what can be done? The first step is to rec­og­nize that the polit­i­cal class in Illi­nois has con­sis­tent­ly under­fund­ed edu­ca­tion and oth­er pub­lic ser­vices for decades. Rauner isn’t the only cul­prit. The deep­er prob­lem is that there is a sweep­ing bipar­ti­san con­sen­sus in favor of aus­ter­i­ty — in favor, that is, of forc­ing the work­ing-class major­i­ty of the state to pick up the bill for the glob­al eco­nom­ic cri­sis through accept­ing bud­get cuts and dimin­ished liv­ing standards.

This con­sen­sus must be bro­ken and defeat­ed. Let us not for­get that we live in one of the rich­est coun­tries on the plan­et. And Illi­nois is a very wealthy state, with scores of bil­lion­aires and the 13th high­est per capi­ta income. There are mas­sive pri­vate con­cen­tra­tions of wealth in the city of Chica­go. There’s no rea­son why we should cut a sin­gle cent out from the edu­ca­tion bud­get. On the con­trary, we should be expand­ing invest­ment in edu­ca­tion as oth­er states are doing.

It wouldn’t be hard to do. If Illi­nois adopt­ed the same grad­u­at­ed income tax sys­tem that Iowa has, more than $6.3 bil­lion could be raised annu­al­ly in addi­tion­al rev­enue at the same time that the major­i­ty of tax­pay­ers would pay at a low­er rate. Illi­nois could also adopt a finan­cial trans­ac­tion tax — for exam­ple, by charg­ing traders on the Chica­go Mer­can­tile Exchange a small fee of $1 per trans­ac­tion — to raise sub­stan­tial new revenue.

From a pure­ly tech­ni­cal per­spec­tive, the solu­tion to the cri­sis is sim­ple: no cuts, tax the rich. The pol­i­tics of how to get from here to there, how­ev­er, are any­thing but straightforward.

Sus­tained, large-scale job actions are nec­es­sary to win

Many in the labor move­ment are under­stand­ably anx­ious to get rid of Rauner. This is as true of my own union, the Illi­nois Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (IFT), as it is of any oth­er. But this sin­gle-mind­ed focus on Rauner is a los­ing strat­e­gy. It is a recipe for man­ag­ing the con­tin­u­ing decline of the state, not for tak­ing it for­ward. Our fun­da­men­tal oppo­nent isn’t Rauner — abra­sive, unlik­able, unpleas­ant and reac­tionary as he is — but the broad gov­ern­ment con­sen­sus in favor of aus­ter­i­ty and neoliberalism.

The labor move­ment is the only force capa­ble of break­ing this con­sen­sus. To be sure, com­pared to its rel­a­tive hey­day in decades past, the Illi­nois labor move­ment is weak. But it remains the most potent weapon work­ing peo­ple in the state have to over­turn aus­ter­i­ty and increase invest­ment in the pub­lic good. Illi­nois still has 847,000 union mem­bers, and there are scores more in the ranks of the unor­ga­nized who would glad­ly join them. If unit­ed and mobi­lized, work­ers have immense pow­er to turn the tide in Illi­nois and beyond. Mobi­liz­ing union mem­ber­ship means more than sim­ply bussing peo­ple to protest in the state capi­tol, how­ev­er. It must involve a will­ing­ness to con­sid­er work­place actions of var­i­ous kinds, espe­cial­ly strikes.

To my knowl­edge, the only large-scale job action ini­ti­at­ed by a union that demand­ed increased state invest­ment in edu­ca­tion was the strike led by the Chica­go Teach­ers Union last year. Though it last­ed only one day, the April 1 strike had a pow­er­ful short-run effect on pub­lic debate about the bud­get cri­sis. Sud­den­ly it became much more real­is­tic to talk about rais­ing new rev­enue by tax­ing the wealthy, when only a few months ear­li­er pub­lic dis­cus­sion cen­tered on how deep cuts should go.

As I see it, the April strike was an open­ing sal­vo in what must become a larg­er, sus­tained, statewide fight against Rauner and his enablers. What, for exam­ple, would it look like if my own union, the IFT, mobi­lized its 100,000+ mem­ber­ship for a statewide walk­out demand­ing the pas­sage of a state bud­get that ful­ly funds pub­lic edu­ca­tion in Illi­nois? What would it look like if oth­er unions joined the action? And how could this move, in turn, be lever­aged to twist the arms of reluc­tant politi­cians as well as gal­va­nize orga­niz­ing efforts to increase the ranks of union members?

We won’t know until we try. And try we must.

Sure­ly Rauner’s deter­mi­na­tion to crush AFSCME in Illi­nois is rea­son to con­sid­er joint job actions with work­ers in oth­er unions. So, too, could Amal­ga­mat­ed Tran­sit Union (ATU) locals 241 and 308 join in and ratch­et up the pres­sure. ATU rep­re­sents more than 10,000 pub­lic tran­sit work­ers who are cur­rent­ly get­ting a raw deal from Chica­go May­or Rahm Emanuel’s appoint­ed Chica­go Tran­sit Author­i­ty czar in ongo­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. The list of unions under the gun goes on and on.

The time has passed to depend on unre­li­able Demo­c­rat politi­cians to look out for our inter­ests. We need to find our voice and chart our own path — for our sakes, for the sakes of stu­dents and all those who depend on pub­lic ser­vices and, indeed, for the future of the state as a whole. The attacks are sure to keep com­ing and the only way to defend our­selves is to har­ness the fact that we — not the Rauners or the Trumps — are the ones who make Illi­nois run.

Tyler Zim­mer teach­es phi­los­o­phy at North­east­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty and is a mem­ber of Uni­ver­si­ty Pro­fes­sion­als of Illi­nois, Local 4100, IFT, AFT.
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