Executive Director Reports

A tale of two capitals

A little more than 500 miles separate Springfield, Ill., from St. Paul, the state capital of Minnesota, but when it comes to politics the two are light years apart.

Unlike in Illinois, the Republican tide of 2010 deluged the Land of 10,000 Lakes and the GOP won majorities in both houses of the legislature.

At the same time, Democrat Mark Dayton nosed out a victory for governor after weeks of recounting.

Upon taking office, Dayton was repeatedly challenged by the new Republican majorities. When the governor and Minnesota AFSCME negotiated a new contract that increased pay, the legislature refused to ratify it.

When the legislature insisted on deep budget cuts that threatened massive layoffs of AFSCME members, Dayton vetoed the budget, forcing a state shutdown until legislators came to their senses.

When presented with anti-labor bills, Dayton vetoed them.

In 2012, to everyone’s surprise, the Democrats regained their majorities in both legislative chambers.

The new Democratic majority moved quickly to ratify the stalled collective bargaining agreement, and in recent months worked with Dayton to extend bargaining rights to 25,000 Minnesotans, raise the state income tax for the state’s wealthiest residents, close corporate tax loopholes and increase funding for school districts and universities.

Compare Springfield to St. Paul.

Here, Gov. Pat Quinn and the Democratic majority didn’t close corporate tax loopholes – they closed developmental centers and prisons.

Rather than grant bargaining rights to 25,000 workers, the governor and his party took rights away from workers.

While Minnesota Democrats approved a contract for state workers, the Illinois legislature refused to appropriate money for back wages owed to employees.

The contrast couldn’t be starker: Two states, both with Democratic governors and legislative majorities, but with totally different results.

One expands bargaining rights, the other erodes them. One honors collective bargaining agreements, the other ignores them. One blocks layoffs, the other promotes them.

One funds education by making corporations and the rich pay their fair share, the other lets CEOs skate while schools get short shrift.

Contrary to what pundits might expect, Minnesotans have rewarded Gov. Dayton’s stand for what’s right with a strong 57 percent approval rating. In contrast, the popularity of Gov. Quinn and Speaker Michael Madigan is below sea level.

Historically, the Democratic Party has stood up for working people.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal gave private sector workers collective bargaining rights, created the Social Security system and unemployment insurance, and established a minimum wage.

Presidents Kennedy and Johnson promoted civil rights and established Medicare.

The Democrats in Minnesota are carrying on this tradition. But elsewhere, the influence of big business and the wealthy have crept into the party of Roosevelt.

The days when most Democrats were reliable allies on issues like basic bargaining rights, fairness in our tax system, and care for those in need are long gone.

Some Democrats still believe in those things, but they are no longer the majority in our state.

And the roles haven’t reversed. The GOP hasn’t replaced Democrats as champions of working people.

Indeed here in Illinois, though we do have support from some Republicans, by and large, when the Democratic leadership says “cut,” the Republican response is “cut more.”

When the governor proposed taking away bargaining rights from thousands of state employees, the Republican legislative leadership stood with him.

There are of course elected officials in both parties who’ve stood with us. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, a Republican, has courageously backed the union-supported pension plan.

A majority of House Republicans voted against the wishes of both Speaker Madigan and their own party leaders when they opposed the Speaker’s pension slashing bill.

In the Senate, four Republicans joined all but two Democrats voting for the union-supported pension plan.

Political reality dictates that we look beyond party labels.

There are union members who are Democrats, others who are Republicans.

But, I think all union members believe workers should have the right to bargain, rich people and corporations should pay a fair share of taxes, and retirement security should be preserved.

If I’m right, then it would make sense that union members would support those who share these views, regardless of party.

That’s the standard AFSCME local presidents and PEOPLE chairs use in making the union’s endorsements. Some of those we endorse end up disappointing us, but many more come through in the clutch. If every union member used that same criteria in the voting booth, we’d have a lot more elected officials who supported us.

It’s OK to cheer for the Cubs, the Cardinals, or the Sox. It’s fun to be partisan when it comes to sports, but in Illinois we can’t afford blind partisanship in politics.