Will Bruce Rauner Be Scott Walker 2.0 for Illinois Unions?

Matthew Blake

Bruce Rauner, the leading Republican in Illinois's race for governor, believes public sector unions are responsible for the state's "long-term death spiral."

Over the last few years, Repub­li­can gov­er­nors in the Mid­west have fre­quent­ly done bat­tle with orga­nized labor, par­tic­u­lar­ly pub­lic employ­ee unions. In 2011, Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walk­er sharply curbed the bar­gain­ing rights of pub­lic work­ers; the next year, Indi­ana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Michi­gan Gov. Rick Sny­der enact­ed right-to-work laws.

Even in Illi­nois, with its super­ma­jor­i­ty Demo­c­ra­t­ic state leg­is­la­ture, pub­lic employ­ees have still had their fair share of feuds with Demo­c­ra­t­ic Gov. Pat Quinn over aus­ter­i­ty mea­sures, most notably a recent cut to pub­lic work­er pen­sions. But since World War Two, when work­ers start­ed orga­niz­ing in earnest, Illi­nois has not faced a gov­er­nor ide­o­log­i­cal­ly opposed to pub­lic-sec­tor unions. 

If he’s elect­ed this year, Repub­li­can guber­na­to­r­i­al can­di­date Bruce Rauner could change that.

A ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist from Chicago’s tony North Shore, Rauner has reg­u­lar­ly argued that pub­lic employ­ee unions bear the blame for Illi­nois’ finan­cial and edu­ca­tion prob­lems. In a Novem­ber 2012 Chica­go Tri­bune edi­to­r­i­al, Rauner opined that Illi­nois is in a long-term death spi­ral” thanks to legal­ized bribery” between elect­ed offi­cials and pub­lic sec­tor unions. He has also bad­mouthed union boss­es” and often expounds on the ben­e­fits of union-free char­ter schools.

I think Rauner is hor­rif­i­cal­ly and his­tor­i­cal­ly anti-union,” says Don Rose, a long­time left-lean­ing Chica­go polit­i­cal consultant.

Mean­while, Rauner’s large­ly self-financed cam­paign—he has spent $6 mil­lion of his own mon­ey, and has raised more than his three GOP pri­ma­ry rivals com­bined — is cruis­ing toward the Repub­li­can nom­i­na­tion for gov­er­nor. An Illi­nois Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ Asso­ci­a­tion poll released last week had Rauner get­ting 36 per­cent of the GOP pri­ma­ry vote, with State Sen. Kirk Dil­lard the four-per­son race’s run­ner-up at 17 percent.

Illi­nois’ pri­ma­ry is March 18, and the GOP win­ner will almost cer­tain­ly take on Quinn, who replaced Rod Blago­je­vich as gov­er­nor in 2009 and then won the elec­tion in 2010. The Wash­ing­ton, D.C.-based Rothen­berg Polit­i­cal Report has judged a Quinn-Rauner race to be a toss-up.”

In light of this poten­tial face­off, pub­lic sec­tor unions through­out the state have already begun to mobi­lize against Rauner. This week, the Illi­nois Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers announced its endorse­ment of Dil­lard for the GOP pri­ma­ry. It is just the sec­ond time in the union’s his­to­ry that it has endorsed a Repub­li­can can­di­date for gov­er­nor; the state’s oth­er main teach­ers’ union, the Illi­nois Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, also backs Dillard.

IFT Pres­i­dent Dan Mont­gomery called Dil­lard a tire­less advo­cate for pubic schools.” But IFT also made clear that its approval of Dil­lard will not nec­es­sar­i­ly extend beyond the pri­ma­ry. Instead, the union seems to be tak­ing every oppor­tu­ni­ty it can to work against Rauner.

I don’t think that you can find a can­di­date in recent mem­o­ry that is as out­ward­ly hate­ful and hyp­o­crit­i­cal as Mr. Rauner,” IFT spokesper­son Avi­va Bowen tells In These Times.

Polit­i­cal con­sul­tant Rose says that even though Dil­lard is a long shot, IFT is wise to put mon­ey — the union has pledged at least $100,000 to the cam­paign — and mobi­liza­tion behind him. The Dil­lard cash cre­ates a slen­der but worth­while pos­si­bil­i­ty [of Rauner los­ing],” Rose says, adding that the sup­port will at least place more pres­sure on Rauner.

IFT has also giv­en $250,000 to a polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee called Illi­nois Free­dom PAC,” which has been sole­ly ded­i­cat­ed to oppos­ing Rauner. Though it formed just a month ago, the PAC has already raised $3.6 mil­lion as of Monday’s state board of elec­tions fil­ings. Donors include AFSCME Coun­cil 31, the state’s largest pub­lic work­ers union, which con­tributed $800,000. Unions rep­re­sent­ing most­ly pri­vate sec­tor employ­ees, such as the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Work­ers, have also pitched in, indi­cat­ing their shared ear­ly oppo­si­tions to the candidate.

And the PAC is read­i­ly using those funds to try and dis­cred­it Rauner to Illi­nois vot­ers. Its lat­est TV ad notes the Rauner-found­ed GTCR pri­vate equi­ty firm owned a nurs­ing home com­pa­ny that lost three patient-neg­li­gence civ­il law­suits. Oth­er PAC-financed anti-Rauner ads — and fre­quent union talk­ing points—say the can­di­date made $53 mil­lion last year, owns nine homes, dubi­ous­ly pulled strings to get his daugh­ter into an elite Chica­go high school and has flip-flopped on whether to raise or low­er the state’s $8.25 an hour min­i­mum wage.

Despite the con­cerns espoused in the unions’ anti-Rauner lit­er­a­ture, though, one point has also become clear: Despite his lav­ish per­son­al finances and vit­ri­olic anti-orga­niz­ing rhetoric, Rauner has not out­lined any spe­cif­ic plan to hurt orga­nized labor on his cam­paign web­site, in his lim­it­ed press inter­views or dur­ing debates.

Rauner has not, for exam­ple, pro­posed curb­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights like Walk­er did, or ini­ti­at­ing a right-to-work law, like Daniels and Sny­der. Though he has backed cre­ation of right-to-work” zones, where local gov­ern­ments could opt to adopt right-to-work laws, the can­di­date has stopped short of endors­ing a statewide law out­right. (Mes­sages left with Rauner’s cam­paign for this sto­ry were not returned.)

And when it comes to pen­sion cuts, the num­ber one issue fac­ing Illi­nois pub­lic employ­ees of late, Rauner’s opin­ion like­ly won’t deter­mine the out­come either way. Many of the same pub­lic employ­ee unions financ­ing Illi­nois Free­dom PAC sued Quinn for sign­ing into law last Decem­ber a land­mark bill that cuts Illi­nois’ pub­lic work­er pen­sions. For his part, Rauner has said that law does not go far enough in cut­ting pen­sions and shoring up the state’s finances. It’s unclear, how­ev­er, what he could do on pen­sions now that the Illi­nois Supreme Court will like­ly decide the matter.

Nonethe­less, Bowen of IFT argues Rauner has staked out a clear anti-mid­dle class and anti-union posi­tion.” That will trans­late into anti-union pol­i­cy, she says, no mat­ter that Rauner cur­rent­ly seems to lack a cohe­sive strat­e­gy for doing so.

And state­house observers feel that while Rauner may not have the impact of, for exam­ple, Scott Walk­er, who enjoys a Repub­li­can-major­i­ty leg­is­la­ture, he can still hurt unions.

At first he can stop things from hap­pen­ing that pub­lic employ­ee unions want to see hap­pen,” says Kent Red­field, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of polit­i­cal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois-Spring­field. And then he can get involved in leg­isla­tive races and work with the state leg­is­la­ture.” In future elec­tions, Red­field explains, Rauner could cre­ate polit­i­cal momen­tum and raise finances to elect anti-union leg­is­la­tors — who would, in turn, intro­duce bills that would be harm­ful to the labor movement.

Anoth­er poten­tial snag, Red­field notes, is that if Rauner is elect­ed, his office will be direct­ly bar­gain­ing with AFSCME employ­ees on their next con­tract. Last year, Quinn nar­row­ly avert­ed an AFSCME Coun­cil 31 strike when the union and gov­er­nor hashed out a deal; when that con­tract runs out in June 2015, nego­ti­a­tions will have to begin anew.

AFSCME and oth­er pub­lic sec­tor unions played a big part in Quinn’s 2010 elec­tion, but then had sev­er­al clash­es with him, includ­ing the afore­men­tioned pen­sions sna­fu and the legal­ly con­tentious clo­sure of state pris­ons and health­care facil­i­ties. Now — bar­ring a Dil­lard upset or the sud­den appear­ance of a third-par­ty can­di­date — those unions will like­ly return to sup­port­ing the incum­bent governor.

Giv­en the choice between Quinn and Rauner,” Rose says, Quinn will sud­den­ly become labor’s hero.” 

Full dis­clo­sure: AFSCME is a web­site spon­sor of In These Times. Spon­sors have no role in edi­to­r­i­al content.

Matthew Blake is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Chica­go. He has writ­ten for the Chica­go Jour­nal, Wash­ing­ton Month­ly, Wash­ing­ton Inde­pen­dent and The Nation, among oth­er publications.
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