While Tuesday’s showdown with Illinois State Dems was the first of many over the state budget, and the corresponding war over the hearts, minds and voters, a significant backstory is Gov. Bruce Rauner’s war on collective bargaining units – known as unions, and especially those in the public sector, which he has gone after with hammer and tong.
To many if it seems as if the rookie governor has a vendetta against unions, then that perception is indeed reality, because he has taken more than a few pages out of the Republican Party playbook.. And, despite his recent defeat in the Illinois House of Representatives for a right-to-work bill, his actions will continue in one form or another, even if he has to press, or pay, fellow Republicans who mostly voted present on the bill, earlier this month.
The defeat came for many reasons, but principally, because, for Democrats, unions are their traditional allies, and many of them saw it as detrimental to the welfare of skilled workers, particularly in this time of economic uncertainty. Plus, they are also a reliable source of votes and cash for liberal, and even conservative Democrats, and a true mainstay of the left.
Just last week the Marion City Council gave full support to organized labor in a resolution, which said in part, that collective bargaining was “”a historic cornerstone of the American middle class,” and most importantly emphasized that the “right-to-work zones are not within the authority of local governments, and that the repeal of prevailing wage requirements on construction projects will drive down wages and benefits and will hurt the local economy.”
Putting it even more forcefully was Commissioner Anthony Rinella, who said “It scares me in this time that we’re so liberal on freedom of speech but we can’t give a worker a right to choose whether they want to be represented or not represented by a labor union. That bothers me. I think people have a right of choice. We just had Memorial Day. People died to give us our freedom and for one person to come in and say we’re not going to allow you this freedom of choice anymore, I have a problem with that.”
Largely touted as part of his “Turnaround Agenda”, Rauner has said that Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, notoriously anti union, is one of his heroes, and In response, the ever quotable, and feisty, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis called Rauner, “Scott Walker on steroids.”
Two of the largest unions on Rauner’s hit list are Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and he has also targeted public works, where many municipalities have union requirements, as does Marion, and Rinella defended it when he said: “In fact, we have a project labor agreement that any project over over $100,000 has to be done by union work.”
In other states, such as Wisconsin, the sentiment has gone the other way, and in Michigan, fellow Republican, Gov. Rick Snyder signed a right-to-work bill, and in Indiana, Gov. Mike Pence repealed an 80 year-old-law that protected union worker salaries for public construction projects, which then affected 75,000 workers.
Snyder, in fact, said that unions “send the wrong message to skilled trade workers,” and others have remarked that unions hamper the company’s ability to work effectively in the market. And, Rauner has deemed unions for the top three horrors of his new administration: pension debt, pending municipal bankruptcy, and loss of business to Illinois.
Traditional objections by Republicans have also said that unions drive down wages and benefits, and the local economy. Yet, even another view claims that the partnership between the two might work too well. Rauner has also persisted with his condemnation, and claims that union dues are not just an anathema, but “a critical cog in the corrupt bargain.that is crushing taxpayers.”
Certainly unions have seen their share of the good times and in the so called “go-go” years of the 60s big names such as Jimmy Hoffa, Walter Reuther, and George Meany who had the ear of presidents. With that glitter also came the reputations of backroom deals, gang associations, and other unsavory matters. But, they also saved workers from being exploited, and especially in the Midwest the salaries that they bargained for created a vast middle class; and whose sons and daughters earned college degrees, and entered the professional ranks – many in government.
But, during the early 2000s some of that power began to erode, partisan as well as financial, when labor density began to drop, almost 8 percent; in the private sector and from this tipping point was an equal drop in representation that affected support from both Democrats and Republicans alike. And, in what had once been a necessary endorsement for elected office seekers, they began to come to labor far less often for a blessing.
Paradoxically, Republican governors, such as Pence, Walker and Snyder, and Chris Christie of New Jersey, are notably anti-union, but yet govern in states where there is a long tradition of collective bargaining, and continue to be reelected.
Some of the paradox may be attributable to persistent unemployment and underemployment, a legacy from the Great Recession, foreign imports, and the decline of manufacturing jobs, noted Thomas B. Edsall in an Op-Ed piece for The New York TImes; also some might be a backlash from a combination of all of those factors.
When Tea Party officials came in force, there was already so much damage to labor unions, their task to destroy them was made easier, noted Kevin Drum for Mother Jones magazine.
The ball then moved to a focus on single women, minorities and the young and recent elective politics have shown those groups receiving a large share of attention, from all candidates, but especially from gubernatorial candidates.
Last November’s election where voters showed dissatisfaction with Democrats over the economy, brought a total of nearly 31 total governors, and control of 67 chambers, five more than the modern era has seen.
With much of the work of unions done on the combined state and local levels, as Edsall also noted, many elections are held during non-presidential election years, where there is a more conservative electorate, and the resulting recipe for attacks on unions is potent.
As Drum noted: “What’s happening now is the logical endpoint of a game that started a long time ago. The only thing new is that unions are now so weak that Republicans feel no need to wear even a thin mask of faux respect for labor anymore. Several decades ago the business wing of the party set out to destroy unions, and they’re now close enough to total victory that they can smell it.”
Representatives of SEIU and AFSCME did not respond to email and phone inquires for comments by publication date.