Illinois House Slaps Down Right-To-Work Law, Gives Strong Rebuke To Union-Busting Governor

Illinois is a union state by long tradition. The legislature’s House of Representatives just made sure that the new anti-union, GOP governor, Bruce Rauner, doesn’t forget it. By a vote of 72-0, they defeated a right-to-work measure, in defiance of the governor’s agenda.

The story of how and why the vote came about is complicated.

Rauner is a billionaire, a former CEO of a private equity firm, who just took office in January. In last fall’s campaign, he emphasized streamlining government, improving education, and overhauling tax policies. What wasn’t clear was the fact that he had working families in his crosshairs.

There was a blip in the campaign when it became known that Rauner had made a statement, in 2013, that he intended to cut Illinois’ minimum wage. However, he backtracked on that position after it was exposed and was still able to go on to win the election. The Democratic incumbent, Pat Quinn, was the nation’s only Democratic governor to lose his bid for re-election in 2014.

The race was made thornier by the entry of a Libertarian candidate who pulled in 3.35% of the vote. Rauner won by less than 4% of the total, with Quinn winning a majority in just one county — Cook County, home to 40% of the state’s population.

Once in office, Rauner wasted no time in showing his true colors. In February, the governor fired a shot across the bow of unions. He issued an executive order that unions cannot require state workers to pay dues. While about 42,000 state employees belong to unions, about 6500 do not, but pay a “fair share” fee because they receive the benefits negotiated by unions.

Under well-established federal labor laws, unions are required to negotiate on behalf of all employees who would benefit from their collective bargaining. In return, unions get a “fair share” fee from non-union workers to cover part of the expense of the negotiations.

While Rauner would like to make Illinois a right-to-work state — meaning no unions could collect “fair share” fees and non-union workers would essentially get a “free ride” when it came to negotiating better benefits. Rauner can’t impose his will statewide without a new law. The unilateral action he took with regard to state employees is being roundly denounced as illegal.

Roberta Lynch, of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council, said the governor’s order was “a blatantly illegal abuse of power.” She added:

Perhaps as a private equity CEO Rauner was accustomed to ignoring legal and ethical standards, but Illinois is still a democracy and its laws have meaning.

Which returns the story to the legislature — almost. First, it’s important to note that the governor has been touring the state, attempting to rouse support for a further ball-busting move against the unions. Since he’s not going to get a law he wants, he’s advocating the creation of local “empowerment zones.”  He’s encouraging voters in local communities to decide whether workers have to join unions or pay dues.

In February, Rauner told residents in Decatur:

I want local voters, I want you to be empowered to decide this issue for yourselves, in your cities and in your county. I want that everywhere in the state.

In other words, he wants a right-to-work state without state legislation, because he can’t get that. He’s attempting an end run around lawmakers. Yes, we’re almost back to the legislature, in just a moment.

Two dozen states have adopted right-to-work laws. Most of them are in the South. Guess where the lowest wage-earners are concentrated? You no doubt guessed it — in the South, because no one is looking out for their interests. This is the standard Governor Rauner wants his state to match.

Here, again, what he is proposing is of dubious legality. The Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 gave states the power to pass right-to-work laws. Bob Bruno, a labor and employment relations professor at the University of Illinois, told the Chicago Tribune:

The federal law, if you read it, it’s really not ambiguous, it says territory or state, and it’s clear from the congressional record what people meant — a state like Illinois or Michigan, not a segment like Cook County. It’s not at all clear where this is consistent with federal law, if this idea would be legal.

Democrats in the legislature are hopping mad. Yes, we’re back to the legislature now.

House Speaker Michael Madigan, who is also the chair of the state Democratic Party, responded:

I think what we ought to do is to understand that organized labor represents working people. For myself, I’m very interested in helping working people. And I’m sure that almost every member of the legislature shares that view. Organized labor doesn’t represent everybody, but they do advance significant ideas before the legislature as to how we can improve the economy, help people get jobs, keep jobs, pay taxes, make a mortgage payment, pay for the education of a child.

On Thursday, just in case Rauner didn’t get the point, in case he didn’t realize that the legislature is intent on doing the business of the people, the Democrats arranged a resounding, decisive vote. They put forward a right-to-work measure that was promptly defeated: 72 no votes, 0 yes votes, and 37 voting ‘present’.

The 37 were Republicans who didn’t want to put their position on record. Just to be sure they couldn’t be associated with the vote, a group of them left and took a stroll while it was going on. The Republicans called it a ‘sham’ vote. The Democrats understood the vote to be a message.

Democratic Rep. Lou Lang (D-Skokie) addressed the GOP:

You have a responsibility to tell the people of Illinois . . . what do you stand for? We stand for them! We stand for organized labor.

Speaker Madigan has more to come. He scheduled a vote for May 21st on two more of the governor’s pet projects: workmen’s compensation, which the governor wants to ‘reform’ (meaning reduce), and capping awards on lawsuits. Madigan says it’s time for the issues to be in the open and for “a constructive and open discussion” to ensue.

Your move, governor.

Feature photo from Labor Local Facebook page