Executive Director Reports

It’s finally spring in Illinois

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

Our union grew stronger during the long, hard winter of Rauner’s reign

Spring has been slow in coming this year. As I write it is mid-April and snow is falling steadily outside my window. But slow though it may be, spring is coming. The trees have been sprouting buds, patches of green grass are appearing, and earlier this week it was so warm, folks were walking around in t-shirts and shorts.

It’s a potent reminder that slow though it may seem, we’re beginning anew too. We’ve survived the harsh winter of Bruce Rauner’s tenure—with its blizzard of attacks on public employees and our union—and we’re coming back stronger than ever.

State employees are back at the bargaining table after three long years. Rauner walked out on negotiations for a new contract in January 2016 based on a false claim of impasse. When he tried to impose his harsh terms—including astronomical increases in health care premiums—union members sent a powerful message by voting overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. Then AFSCME went to court and secured an injunction that stopped him cold.

Even though the union also won a court ruling that required negotiations to resume, Rauner refused to come back to the bargaining table. When JB Pritzker became governor, he pledged that he would renew negotiations—and that’s just what he’s done. Now the AFSCME Bargaining Committee is hard at work on reaching a fair settlement that rejects Rauner’s attempts to subvert job rights, advance privatization and weaken our union.

State employees have also had to struggle through four years without their scheduled step increases after Rauner froze steps in July 2015. AFSCME won that battle in court too, but again Rauner failed to comply. And again, Governor Pritzker has begun to set things right—restoring all employees to their proper steps as of April 1.

Rauner’s gone, but the damage that his stormy term in office has done remains—especially the mountainous state debt he piled up, leaving Illinois with a budgetary disaster. Fortunately, Governor Pritzker is sowing the seeds now that can put our state back on solid ground with his campaign for a fair tax that will ensure the wealthy pay their share.

That kind of tax reform is long overdue. If we can put the necessary constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2020 and gain voter approval, we will greatly increase the odds of repairing ailing public pension systems and strengthening struggling public services. See page 8-9 to get the facts on the fair tax.

There are other changes coming too. AFSCME’s participation in state legislative and local government elections across the state helped bring fresh voices to the General Assembly and to city councils in Chicago, Springfield, Peoria and more. These new elected officials are more willing to stand up to all the powers-that-be, to speak out for working families, and to oppose efforts to privatize public services or undermine union rights.

In the General Assembly we’ve been laboring to raise the pay of low-wage frontline workers in community disability agencies which depend on state funding. Even in the dark ages of Bruce Rauner, AFSCME’s grassroots lobbying secured raises for these workers that averaged more than 10% over the past two years. But they’re still not paid enough to sustain a family or mitigate the need for a second job, so we’ve renewed that effort in the current legislative session.

And then there is the AFSCME Strong program which is coming into full bloom—tens of thousands of members signing the pledge card to refuse to let Bruce Rauner and his uber-rich allies destroy public employee unions in our country.

The Illinois Policy Institute (IPI) and the National Right-to-Work Committee joined forces with Rauner to get the anti-union majority on the US Supreme Court to overturn a decades-old precedent that ensured that all union-represented employees would contribute to the cost of representation.

The Rauner crew claimed that employees would rush to leave their unions once they no longer had to pay dues or a fair share fee. In fact, former feepayers have signed up by the thousands, making clear that unions will continue to thrive.

Our battles are far from over. The IPI continues to use FOIA regulations to gain access to our personal information, invade our privacy and spread their falsehoods. The wealthy elite in Illinois are renewing their efforts to slash or even eliminate public employee pensions. The forces of privatization are regrouping and looking for more public services to commandeer.

We know they’ll keep on attacking and there will be more hard times to come. But we’ve shown we can survive and even thrive in the harshest of weathers. For now, let’s welcome all the signs of spring’s renewal and take pride in the more powerful union that we’ve become.