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Illinois governor out to destroy unions

By Richard Berg |
July 30, 2015
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Illinois public workers stand up to attack by governor
Illinois public workers stand up to attack by governor (Fight Back! News/Staff)

Chicago, IL -They started filing into work between 7:00 and 8:30 in the morning. After years of schooling they landed a job with the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS). The job can be mentally draining. Conditions are bad. Today the temperature is supposed approach 90 degrees. The air conditioning hasn’t worked for more than two years. Bed bugs have again been reported as being in the building. The bathrooms are unsanitary and the drinking water has both color and odor.

Today was different. As the nearly 400 workers came through the revolving door, June 10, virtually all of them were wearing the green t-shirt of their union, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). During the lunch break their frustration with newly elected Governor Bruce Rauner exploded. Loud chants of “Get up. Get Down. Chicago is a union town!” and “Tax, tax, tax, the rich!” filled the streets outside the DHS office located on Chicago’s Northside, where they were joined by community activists.

Being a Human Service Case Worker (HSC) is an important job for low-income people in Illinois just as it is in every state. “As an HSC I make sure people that need food, health care and other means of survival get it,” said AFSCME Local 2858 Executive Board Member Bunnie Johnson.

Billionaire Governor Rauner is one of the richest men in the world. He has declared war on workers such as Johnson. He doesn’t like the fact that Johnson is a union member. That he and more than 75,000 other AFSCME members in Illinois have used their collective power to speak up on behalf of themselves, on behalf of veterans, the elderly, the disabled, children who are abused, the poor and the 99% in Illinois is a great thing.

Rauner, an extreme right-wing libertarian, thinks government’s only legitimate role is to give incentives to business. By allowing some income taxes in Illinois to sunset he personally saves $750,000 per year. As a ‘true believer’ in an extreme right-wing version of libertarianism, the new governor unilaterally suspended funding for programs addressing domestic violence, homeless youth, autism and immigrant integration. He has also proposed $4.1 billion in budget cuts affecting higher education, Medicaid, state employee pensions, Chicagoland public transit and local government support.

“This guy has declared a war on the working class. His attacks have created a unity across unions that did not exist before. We are going to join together, we are going to fight and become the voice that allows working people to be heard over the ‘ka-ching ka-ching’ of the moneyed few,” said Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 union steward Cathleen Jensen. Jensen was key to organizing a union of Professional Employees at the University of Illinois at Chicago Hospital. “Unions are the organizations of working people, our voice and our power. That’s why Rauner hates us,” Jensen added.

Rauner is using a real financial crisis in Illinois to try to bust our unions. The crisis was created when politicians of both parties borrowed money from state workers’ pensions to balance the state budget. The amount due is high. The state’s unfunded liability is around $100 billion. AFSCME Council 31’s Roberta Lynch writes in her Executive Director’s Report, “Despite Illinois’ budget challenges, Rauner has devoted much of his time to bopping around the state on his disinformation mission, pushing for support for his ‘turnaround agenda’- right to work zones, cutting benefits to injured workers, eliminating the prevailing wage for construction workers and taking away bargaining rights from public employees.”

Rauner has been traveling across the state visiting local governments, using his substantial wealth to try to pass resolutions supporting his ‘turnaround agenda.’ Workers have turned out in mass at village council and county board meetings across Illinois to protest Rauner’s agenda. “Our efforts are working,” said AFSCME Local 448 President Kathy Lane in Dixon, Illinois, “Rauner’s resolutions are failing because these local politicians live in our communities. We are united, so they know if they sell us out they will still have to attend our churches, send their kids to our schools, eat in our restaurants and drink in our taverns.”

AFSCME Council 31’s publication On the Move writes that Rauner has decided to start his attack with AFSCME and the union’s 38,000 state workers, but for him this is just the start. “’Bruce Rauner has launched an all out assault on the very existence of labor unions in Illinois - he has made state workers his No. 1 target,’ Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said. ‘As their employer - and party to their collective bargaining agreement - he is clearly trying to make them the testing ground for his program to eliminate all union members in the state.’”

His proposals to AFSCME at contract negotiations are designed to provoke a strike. He wants to eliminate virtually all union rights to communication, representation and assembly. He has also demanded draconian economic concessions and the virtually unlimited ability to subcontract out union jobs.

AFSCME members have been organizing rallies, informational picket lines and other activities like the one on Chicago’s Northside across the state. “We are working with other unions, with the community, with people of conscious to get the word out, to get organized. Rauner is a threat to all workers,” said AFSCME Local 2858 Executive Board Member Darla Scott.

AFSCME caught the governor by surprise when the union introduced legislation in the Illinois General Assembly to allow for ‘interest arbitration.’ If either the state or the union requests an outside arbitrator to settle their dispute, the bill bans the use of a strike or lockout once the hearing starts. Further, the arbitrator’s ruling is binding on both the union and the state. The law would sunset in four years, not coincidentally, around the same time as the governor’s term of office.

The vote passed overwhelmingly in both houses along mainly partisan lines. One union official noted, “It was surprising to hear so many Republican politicians argue for public workers right to strike.” The governor is likely to veto the bill. He may play with the timeline to try to continue to provoke a strike with the intent of busting the union.

Rauner is a representative of the most aggressive anti-worker section of the 1%. He has drawn a line in the sand with this battle in Illinois. Workers’ standard of living and workers’ rights have been in a free fall for decades. The battle to preserve trade union rights has moved from Wisconsin to Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Missouri and now Illinois. It is time that we organize to put an end to these attacks. Right here. Right now. Solidarity Forever!