Executive Director Reports

Building power to protect our pensions

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

One man should not call all the shots

Note: This column was printed in the May-June 2022 issue of On the Move, which was published before the June 28 primary election. It was also published before news hit that Ken Griffin was uprooting his home and business to move to Florida.

For weeks now we’ve been inundated with TV ads, glossy mailers and even digital messages about one political candidate or another in the lead up to the primary election in our state.

By the time you read this, the primary will be over and we’ll be on our way to the general election which will likely generate an even heavier diet of communications.

I don’t mind the glut of information, really. I know which organizations I can trust to provide truthful and helpful material about how the candidates’ positions will impact working families. And, of course, our union is my most reliable source of all. Our PEOPLE committees—short for Public Employees Organized to Promote Legislative Equality—are the union’s political arm, made up of local union leaders from all across the state who pore over the voting records of incumbent legislators and conduct in-person interviews with newcomers with a laser-like focus on issues that matter to us as public service workers.

Among the most important of all the races that will be before us this November are two contests that may not yet be on the radar screens of most union members. But they will influence the lives of every public employee in Illinois for decades to come: two open seats on the Illinois Supreme Court. One in the 3rd district that includes Kankakee, LaSalle, Will and four other counties; the other in the 2nd district includes DuPage, Lake, Kane, Kendall and McHenry counties.

To understand how critical these races are, we have to go back and look at what happened in the 2020 election when Chief Justice Tom Kilbride was up for a retention vote. Justice Kilbride, a Democrat and long-time champion of workers’ rights on the court, was widely respected within the legal community. Yet he lost that election—the first time that a sitting judge was ever denied retention—even though he won 56% of the vote (retention requires 60%).

How could that happen when Justice Kilbride had the support of every union in the state of Illinois—ranging from the teachers to the teamsters—as well as numerous other civic and legal organizations? The answer is simple and deeply alarming: Ken Griffin.

Griffin is Illinois’ richest individual—worth some $29 billion—and he is determined to re-shape Illinois politics to his own benefit. In 2014 and 2018, Griffin was Bruce Rauner’s biggest backer, contributing a total of $36 million over the course of Rauner’s two elections. And he also poured tens of millions into the campaign to defeat the Fair Tax ballot initiative, which would have ensured that the wealthy paid a little more in taxes so the rest of us wouldn’t have to.

But perhaps most disturbing, Ken Griffin almost single-handedly knocked Tom Kilbride off the Illinois Supreme Court. Griffin is rumored to have a particular animus toward public employee pensions and, according to Chicago magazine, Kilbride was viewed as “an obstacle to the conservative project of reforming the state’s pension system.” Of course, in this context “reforming” should be read as “dismantling.”

In fact, the head of the front group, Citizens for Judicial Fairness, to which Griffin contributed some $11 million to defeat Kilbride authored a column in the Chicago Tribune in which he described Illinois public employee pensions as “too rich.” Given that the average benefit paid out by the state and university retirement systems is $37,000 (with many pensioners excluded from Social Security), the only thing “rich” in this case is a billionaire like Griffin trying to rob Illinois public employees of the benefits they have earned.

The good news, maybe, is that the state Supreme Court’s two key rulings in 2015 and 2016—striking down legislation that attempted an end run around the Illinois’ constitution’s pension protection clause were unanimous—with both Democrats and Republicans on the court voting to ensure the integrity of our state’s pension benefits.

The not-so-good news, however, is that Griffin and company are betting that Republicans on the court—just like in the legislature—have changed a lot over the past few years and are much more likely to let their billionaire backers call the shots. GOP gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey was the chief sponsor of legislation to overturn the constitutional protection for public employee pensions. And GOP House Minority Leader Jim Durkin said he would happily sponsor legislation to that same end.

The Illinois Policy Institute and its wealthy backers continue to promote their distorted world view in which public employee unions dominate in political contests. But the simple—and painful—fact is that one super-wealthy man, Ken Griffin, puts more money into any given election cycle than all unions combined in our state.

So in reality, our best hope of remaining a democracy governed by the rule of law and responsive to the interests of the majority rather than an oligarchy is to build the power, including the political power, of the labor movement.

Griffin is doing everything he can—giving more than $6 million already—to defeat the Democratic candidates for the Illinois Supreme Court. “The hedge fund executive, who has already spent $50 million to back Aurora Mayor Richard Irvin for governor, has once again poured money into Citizens for Judicial Fairness, a conservative independent expenditure committee,” reports the Chicago Tribune.

We need to build our PEOPLE program ever stronger—in dollars and in boots on the ground—to stop Kenny G in his tracks. If you’re not a PEOPLE contributor yet, now’s the time to become one. If you are, increase your contribution to the MVP level. And if you live in one of the targeted court districts, plan now to volunteer with your union to get out the vote. Your retirement security may depend on it.