Executive Director Reports

Copy of A man of his word? Not likely

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

September-October, 2015

Illinois state employees care for veterans, prevent child abuse, protect public safety, respond in emergencies and help those in need. They are also parents, grandparents and community volunteers. Far from the villains that billionaire governor Bruce Rauner makes them out to be, these vital public servants make our state a better place.

Rauner has misrepresented the impact of unions on the state’s economy, distorted the data on public employee wages and benefits, and attempted to blame state workers for the state’s multi-billion dollar budget shortfall.

But nowhere was Rauner’s propensity for fabrication more in evidence than the recent high-stakes, high-profile battle over Senate Bill 1229, legislation providing an alternative to the potential disruption of a strike or lockout in the current round of state contract negotiations.

It was clear from the outset of those negotiations that the governor was seeking to provoke conflict, not reach resolution. While the union’s proposals were limited and modest in recognition of Illinois’ budgetary woes, Rauner not only demanded steep economic concessions, but brought in dozens of proposals that would strip away workplace rights and undermine workplace safety.

For months, the governor’s bargaining team barely budged on any of its extreme demands that would have effectively decimated the union contract. At the same time, the Administration began quietly recruiting retired state employees as strikebreakers, and is reported to have even begun discussions with the Illinois National Guard to take over the work of state employees. It seemed all too likely to union members that there was a game plan in place to force employees out on strike—and keep them out—as the governor during his campaign had repeatedly pledged to do.

That’s why AFSCME decided to support legislation that provided an alternative path to a fair contract by extending to all state employees the option of “interest arbitration,” a process by which outstanding issues in a contract dispute are submitted to a panel of independent arbitrators for resolution.

It’s the same process that has been in place for more than three decades for police officers, firefighters and other public safety personnel.

Rauner called this reasonable legislation the “worst bill in the history of Illinois” and vetoed it in July. He began spreading the accusation far and wide that arbitrators have a pro-union bias and would almost inevitably rule for the union. In fact, a review of all 656 rulings issued in public safety contract disputes since 2012 found that they pretty much split down the middle—44 percent for the union, 43 percent for the employer.

The Senate overrode Rauner’s veto in August and as the House considered the same action, Rauner told legislators that his team had taken proposals off the bargaining table that had never been withdrawn. And he said that the union was making demands that had never been put on the bargaining table.

Meanwhile, super-PACs allied with the governor—including Turnaround Illinois and the Koch Brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity—flooded legislative districts with paid robocalls and attack ads, intimidating lawmakers and confusing voters by echoing Rauner’s false claims. In the end, the House failed to override Rauner’s veto by just three votes.

The battle to enact SB 1229 gave voice to the hopes and concerns of thousands of Illinois state employees. They are strongly committed to the vital services they provide, and want to do everything possible to avoid the disruption and hardship that a work stoppage would bring. The bill came within a whisper of becoming law and helped to shine a bright light on Rauner’s confrontational bargaining strategy. It impelled the governor to publicly commit not to lock out state employees and to bargain in good faith to reach a contract settlement.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to believe that this particular zebra has actually changed his stripes. Rauner’s hostility toward working people and labor unions appears to be hard-wired.

What has changed as a result of the battle over SB 1229, though, is awareness among the wider public about what is at stake in state employees’ contract negotiations. Despite the unrelenting barrage of misinformation emanating from Rauner’s public relations apparatus, support for state employees continues to bloom—with those brightly colored ‘We Support State Workers’ signs popping up in yards, windows and local businesses across the state. The many state employees who joined in Labor Day parades and festivities—often wearing their AFSCME green—were heartened by the applause and cheers that greeted them.

It’s increasingly clear that our fellow citizens do not want to see the kind of conflict that a labor dispute would cause. The governor claimed he could reach a contract settlement without such conflict. The AFSCME bargaining committee will do everything possible to ensure that’s one pledge he keeps.