By Bill Bianchi, Progressive Democrats of America-Illinois
Over the past year, organized labor has suffered serious sets back across the union movement’s Midwestern homeland. In Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan the devastating 2010 election left union busting Republicans with near complete political power in state government. They have used that power with glee to destroy public and private unions. In Illinois however, Democrats have retained political power, so the story should be different, and it is, but it is not encouraging.
The Wisconsin story is well known. After winning the governor's office in 2010, Republican Scott Walker enabled by a Republican controlled state house and senate, abolished collective bargaining for government employees. In their birth state of Wisconsin, public employee unions are now experiencing sharp membership declines.
In 2010 Ohio Republican John Kasich the former Ohio congressman, House Budget Committee chair and Fox News commentator, returned to Ohio with a mission. After narrowly winning the governor’s seat, Kasich introduced a law that would abolish the right, established in 1984, of public employees to bargain over wages, hours, working conditions, health care, and pensions. The law also abolished the right to strike and allowed the state to permanently replace workers who do strike. The law sailed quickly through Ohio’s Republican dominated General Assembly.
Fortunately, Ohio unions fought back, organizing a state-wide movement that, using the referendum process, succeeded in repealing Kasich’s anti-labor law. But Ohio labor continues to face an extremely hostile state government.
In Indiana and Michigan a similar story lines have unfolded. The 2010 elections ushered in complete Republican control of the state legislatures and governor’s offices, and this year both have passed so called “Right to Work” laws. This legislation prohibits the automatic collection of union dues from all employees in a union shop. With workers no longer obligated to pay union dues, union membership, revenue, and strength decline.
So in four Republican dominated Midwestern states that used to be labor friendly, unions are under serious attack.
Illinois should be different, right?
In the 2010 elections, Illinois’ Democrats, with lots of help from organized labor, neatly avoided the devastating defeats suffered by their Democratic colleagues in neighboring states. Illinois Democrats retained control of both legislative houses and the governor’s office. And in the recent 2012 election, with even more help from labor, those majorities were extended even further. The Democrats now enjoy veto proof majorities in both legislative houses. But, Illinois Democrats are showing little appreciation for labor’s help. In fact they are treating labor like an unwanted step child.
The long relationship between Illinois Democrats and organized labor has been under severe stress for over a year. Using the financial crisis as a hammer, politicians from both parties have blamed teachers and state employees for the state’s financial crisis, portraying them as overpaid and unwilling to sacrifice. Meanwhile, the media busily stirs up resentment against public employees among poorly paid private sector workers.
Teachers and other state employees have been asked repeatedly to make financial concessions to reduce Illinois’ budget short fall. In particular, the state seeks to reduce pensions across the board for teachers and other state employees, not however for office holders. This from the politicians who last year granted huge tax breaks to some of Illinois’ most profitable companies.
Over the past two months, top Democrats have turned down-right abusive toward their former partner in politics. In Chicago top Democrat Rahm Emanuel who has been battling all year with our feisty Teachers Union, recently announced that up to 300 SEIU members who work as janitors and window washers at Ohare airport will lose their jobs just in time for the Holidays. Ho Ho Ho! They will be replaced by new non-union workers at lower wages, turning what are now full time, family-sustaining jobs into part-time poverty jobs. (See story here.)
And just three days before Thanksgiving, Mayor Emanuel announced that 34 full-time customer service jobs at the Water Department will be outsourced to a firm in Japan. Just like Mitt Romney would do, full time Chicago workers will be replaced by temporary workers who receive less pay and little benefits and may not even live in Chicago. Not sure if the laid off workers were unionized, but regardless, it sends another chilling message to those who are.
Meanwhile Governor Pat Quinn, another Democrat who won election only because of the efforts of organized labor, announced he will freeze wages of state employees, ignoring a labor contract with the state’s unionized workers that calls for 2% raises. The Governor said the move would help ease the state’s budget problems and save $75 million.
AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer called the move “illegal and irresponsible. Governor Pat Quinn has trampled on the collective bargaining process and broken his contract with the men and women who do the real work of state government.”
Along with that, a Democratic controlled state legislative committee voted to let the Chicago Public Schools put off announcing school closures until next March, making it more difficult from the teachers union to oppose the move.
While Illinois Democrats are not out to destroy unions as Republican are doing in neighboring states, they do seem ready to resolve the state’s financial crisis on the back of workers while also trimming back union power and their ability to organize. If a union can’t enforce contract provisions it negotiated around raises and pensions, how can it convince workers to join?
For many years Illinois’ unions have long defended the rights of their members and their organizations through a two-pronged political strategy of simultaneously partnering with and pressuring the Democratic Party. But events of the past year show that this strategy is growing increasingly dysfunctional. How much longer will Illinois labor leaders pretend they are partners with Party leaders when those leaders continue to force austerity on their members and under cut union power and basic rights?
Maybe it’s time Illinois’ union leaders stop pushing this problem aside and start dealing with it head on. If the Democrats are no longer pro-labor, where should unions look for the political support they need to protect workers? If they don’t soon deal with this question, unions in Illinois may soon be imperiled just as they are in our neighboring states.
 From 2001 to 2007, Kasich worked as an investment banker as the managing director of Lehman Brothers's Columbus office until the firm collapsed in 2008.