Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner: Organized Labor's Public Enemy No 1?
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Author: Steven Greenhouse
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The Guardian

Union leaders say Republican who spent $27m of his own money on getting elected may surpass Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in ferocity of his ‘assault on labor’

Rob Fanti, a counselor for prisoners at the Sheridan correctional center outside Chicago, said he had expected Illinois’ new governor, Bruce Rauner, to begin his term by attacking the state’s outsize budget deficit.

Fanti said he was “stunned” that Rauner instead began by attacking labor unions, pushing a half-dozen proposals that would weaken and shrink organized labor. Among those proposals, Rauner – the former chairman of a private equity fund who spent $27m of his own money to win election – would prohibit government-employee unions from contributing to state and local political campaigns.

“This state has some major fiscal problems, but he wants to turn his attention to bashing state workers and busting unions,” said Fanti, who heads his prison’s 400-member union local. “Morale is right out the window now because of what he’s doing.”

Rauner ran to the right during the Republican primaries, saying “government union bosses” ran the state, but in the general election he muted his views on labor. Since his inauguration last month, however, he has emerged as a full-throated foe of unions, with some labor leaders complaining that he is pushing to demonize, defund and delegitimize unions. Some union leaders say he might supplant Wisconsin governor Scott Walker as labor’s public enemy No 1.

Last week, Rauner issued an executive order – challenged by the state’s Democratic attorney general – that would bar any requirement that state employees pay so-called “fair share” fees to the union that represents them. In his state of the state address on 4 February, Rauner proposed letting localities create special economic development “empowerment” zones that would have right-to-work laws banning any labor contract that requires workers to pay union fees. Rauner embraced this local approach, knowing the Democratic-controlled state legislature would never approve statewide right-to-work legislation.

In his state of the state, Rauner pushed hard for banning political contributions by public-employee unions.

“Government unions should not be allowed to influence the public officials they are lobbying and sitting across the bargaining table from through campaign donations and expenditures,” he said.

Rauner also hammered that point in his inaugural address. There he denounced “government union bosses negotiating sweetheart deals across the table from governors they’ve spent tens of millions of dollars to help elect”.

“That’s a corrupt bargain,” he added.

He has also called for scrapping prevailing wage laws that require state and local government to pay near union scale on construction projects.

“I was shocked by the breadth of his assault on labor,” said Roberta Lynch, executive director of District 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (Afscme), the state’s largest public-sector union. “It’s much more sweeping that what Scott Walker called for because it’s not limited to public sector unions. He’s targeting the private sector unions too.”

Lynch noted that Rauner is pushing for local right-to-work laws, while Walker – who pushed through landmark legislation in 2011 that curbed collective bargaining by most of Wisconsin’s public sector unions – is maneuvering to tamp down a push for right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin. (Walker fears that it might spark a second “War of Wisconsin” that could trip up his 2016 presidential run.)

Lynch said Rauner’s suggestion that union donations to political officials lead to sweetheart deals was ridiculous. She said state and local officials, whether or not they received contributions from labor, inevitably drove a tough bargain in negotiations.

Rauner, who owns seven homes and two ranches and whose 2013 income was $60.1m, has often said bloated government-employee wages and pensions have fueled the state budget deficit. Lynch says that state employees’ payroll is just 6.7% of the budget.

Rauner has bemoaned his state’s weak job growth and noted that “real family incomes in Illinois have gone down”. He championed local right-to-work laws as a way to make Illinois more competitive – evidently envious that Indiana and Michigan recently enacted statewide right-to-work laws of their own.

“Governor Rauner wants to empower local communities to have a choice when it comes to union workers,” said Catherine Kelly, his press secretary. “Employee empowerment zones will allow communities to better compete with surrounding states when attracting new businesses.”

(Rauner often says, in error, that employers in unionized government and private-sector workplaces are forced to join unions. They currently have the right to opt out of joining.)

Lynch said that considering Rauner’s attacks on public-employee pay and his push for right to work, “he seems genuinely determined to drive down the wages of middle class people.”

She pointed to a study by Moody’s Analytics that said the state’s budget “has been unbalanced and unsustainable for many years”, and has often been balanced only “by not putting aside sufficient funds to cover the increase in future pension benefits”.

Moody’s noted Rauner’s push for right to work, but questioned whether it would help the state. It wrote: “Since laws that hurt unions shift the balance of power from employees to owners, they tend to erode wages and lead to a more uneven distribution of the gains of economic growth. Consequently, even if the impact of right-to-work laws is positive in the short run, it can diminish over time because of the downward pressure on incomes.

Jacob Huebert, a lawyer with the Liberty Justice Center, a Chicago-based libertarian advocacy group, praised Rauner’s right-to-work and fair-share proposals.

“Forcing state employees to pay those fair-share fees is a violation of their first amendment rights,” he said. The Rauner administration hopes that his fair-share move will lead to a supreme court ruling that outlaws fair-share fees nationwide.

Huebert also applauded Rauner’s opposition to the prevailing wage. “It forces the cost of these contracts up,” he said. “It forces everyone, whether union or not, to pay union wages.”

Nonetheless, he criticized Rauner’s push to bar political donations by public sector unions, saying that under the first amendment corporations, unions and others should be free to spend as much as they like in campaigns.

Joel Cutcher-Gershenfeld, dean of the Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations at the University of Illinois, had a less sanguine assessment of Rauner’s push for right to work and a ban on fair-share fees.

“This effort to erode union dues is a way to weaken unions,” he said. “This is one square of a greater tapestry we’re seeing spread across the country.”

Cutcher-Gershenfeld questioned why Rauner was pushing policies like barring public sector union contributions that face certain death in the Democratic-controlled legislature.

“This appears to be an effort to demonize unions,” he said. “Demonizing unions and public sector workers is almost a naked political move.”

Rauner, he said, might also be strategizing to put state unions on the defensive in this year’s contract negotiations, although he warned that this could backfire.

“Rauner’s poking the unions in the eye, and they’re going to come up fighting,” he said.

During the Republican primaries, Rauner promised a tough stance in union negotiations if elected, suggesting he might force a strike. Afscme’s contract for 37,000 state workers expires on 1 July.

Fanti, the prison counselor, said: “It really gets me that he says we’re getting sweetheart deals.” In the last round of negotiations, his parent union held numerous protests during lengthy contract negotiations and denounced the previous governor, a Democrat, for rescinding some bargained-for raises.

Fanti, who earns $68,000 a year after 24 years on the job and two promotions, bridles at the notion that government employees are overpaid.

“I lead a middle-class life, I have a modest house,” he said. “And we do a dangerous job.”

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