By Emily Hoerner
Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner ignited conversation by sending a memo to the Illinois legislature, calling on lawmakers to prune union rights and government spending just two days before Wednesday’s State of the State address.
The memo prefaced the governor’s cost-saving measures, including state employee rule reforms that Rauner described in the memo as “fair to both state workers and taxpayers.” The note pointed out that federal workers are prohibited from striking and bargaining over wages, benefits and pensions. Illinois union workers are not.
A spokeswoman for Rauner’s office declined to comment on the memo or provide further information about the governor’s upcoming address.
Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former 44th Ward alderman, said he thinks Rauner’s comments on union power are an attempt to signal a change in direction.
“I think the governor is trying to start out with an agenda of austerity,” Simpson said. “There will be cutbacks and sacrifices, and one of them is to curb both unions and government employees.”
Rauner’s venture into minimizing union power hasn’t really been done before in the state, Simpson said.
“He is Scott Walker on steroids,”
– Karen Lewis, Chicago Teachers Union
Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs, said the decision to bring up union powers was likely popular with the governor’s base voters. But because of the Democratic majority in the legislature, the measure will be an uphill battle, he said.
“You’re fighting a fight you probably can’t win and you’re making it more contentious,” Redfield said.
By threatening union member rights, including those in labor, trade, public and private sectors, Rauner may be uniting the workers and solidifying opposition, he said.
Even before the memo was released, Rauner’s position on union power drew ire from Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis. During a speech at the City Club of Chicago on Monday, Lewis said the governor was working to “vilify” her teachers.
“The real Rauner is also busy trying to make the term ‘collective bargaining’ into dirty words,” Lewis said during her speech.
Lewis said she and her teachers won’t be silent in facing future conflicts, and compared Rauner to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who received national attention after cutting union’s collective bargaining rights in his state.
“He is Scott Walker on steroids,” Lewis said.
Redfield said the move to go after union power in Illinois is out of Walker’s and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniel’s playbook, but that Rauner’s views aren’t necessarily any more extreme. In fact, Redfield said, Rauner’s goals aren’t likely to go anywhere.
“Labor has been a very powerful force in the state for a very long period of time,” Redfield said.
Darren Lubotsky, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who has researched labor unions, said the sheer number of union members isn’t the only force likely to protect their powers. Unlike in Wisconsin, Illinois provides protections for public sector union workers in the constitution, he said.
“You’re fighting a fight you probably can’t win and you’re making it more contentious,”
-Kent Redfield, Institute of Government and Public Affairs
Bargaining rights wouldn’t necessarily save the state money, either, Lubotsky said. The real money issue with unions comes from the pension fund because in the past the state didn’t make the monetary contributions they were required to, he said.
“They didn’t put in the money they promised to put in,” Lubotsky said. “Now it’s more expensive to put that money back in.”
Rauner is facing a dismal budget deficit, made larger when the 2011 temporary income tax increase expired on Jan. 1 this year. The governor is set to release his new budget on Feb. 18, two weeks after his State of the State address.
Redfield said he thinks Rauner’s speech Wednesday will focus less on the specifics about fixing the budget and more on big ideas.
“The minute you get specific, then you’ve got winners and losers,” Redfield said. “If he’s smart, he’s going to be making friends and not collecting enemies.”