Executive Director Reports

Super-rich attempt Illinois takeover

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

February-March 2015

You have to go all the way back to ancient Athens to find an explanation for what’s happening in our state – and our country – today. It was the political philosopher Aristotle who first used the term “oligarchy” to refer to rule by the rich, warning against the dangers posed to democracy when a small elite takes control of the reins of power to advance its own interests.

That danger has never been more real in our own lifetimes than it is right now – most especially here in the state of Illinois. Bruce Rauner, our state’s billionaire governor, spent more than $25 million of his own money to win election and then immediately created a $20 million “intimidation fund” to threaten any politician who doesn’t go along with his agenda.

Rauner’s rise to power was fueled by close ties to other billionaires, like Chicago-based hedge fund honcho Ken Griffin, who attracted national attention when he bemoaned the fact that the super-rich don’t have “enough influence” on politics.

The reality, of course, is that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision striking down campaign finance restrictions accelerated the steadily-swelling influence of the über-wealthy on the political process. That means the very rich exert ever more sway over not just the outcome of elections, but also the critical policy issues that affect all our lives.

There are many goals that unite the New American Oligarchy to which Bruce Rauner belongs: the privatization of public services, a tax system that shields their riches, the destruction of public education, diminished workplace rights and consumer protections, lower wages, and more of that ilk.

But there’s no doubt that their first and foremost goal is to clear the playing field of the only entity that has the resources and determination to stand up to them – America’s labor unions.

Pundits all across Illinois have been puzzling as to why Governor Rauner, faced with a massive budget shortfall and in need of all the help he can get to resolve it, would make an assault on labor unions a top priority. But that’s just what he’s done, scarring his very first State of the State address with ugly, divisive rhetoric and flat-out false attacks on unions. And then following that up with an unconstitutional executive order that seeks to deprive AFSCME and other unions in state government of the resources to effectively represent employees.

When he should be seeking to unify Illinois citizens, the governor’s out there almost every day seeking instead to stir up hostility against state employees and other union members – portraying us as “overpaid” and blaming us for the state’s $4 billion budget shortfall.

Rauner’s launched a full-fledged attack on the members of building trades unions as well, pressing to drive down their wages too by eliminating prevailing wage standards and project labor agreements.

But while it may seem mysterious to many in the media, Governor Rauner’s obsession with weakening Illinois unions fits within the context of the corporate elite’s nationwide crusade to eliminate organized labor from the American political landscape. It’s part and parcel of their determination to drive down the standard of living of middle class families in our country – and shift an ever greater share of the nation’s wealth into their own pockets.

Rauner’s attack on fair-share fees and his support for “right-to-work” zones is no more about the rights of workers than allowing corporations to give unlimited amounts of money to politicians is about freedom of speech.

This became even clearer when the governor unveiled his budget plan, which pushes for drastic cuts to state employee pension and health care benefits, as well as steep cuts in funding for cities, counties, state universities, and nonprofit service agencies – cuts that will harm public service workers all across Illinois.

Yet in all his complaints about conflicts of interest, all the blame he spreads for driving up state spending, and all his talk of “shared sacrifice,” never once has the governor expressed any concern about the vast sums of money poured into political coffers by the state’s super-rich and big corporations or suggested eliminating some of the $2 billion in tax giveaways that Illinois’ own oligarchy takes from the state treasury every year.

While Rauner rails against public employees coming together to have a voice in the political arena through their union, he sees no “conflict of interest” in taking big contributions from those big businesses that benefit from the state’s tax loopholes.

The New York Times described Governor Rauner’s actions as a ‘“war on workers.” If we want to defend the middle-class standard of living we’ve worked so hard to achieve and the democracy that is the bedrock of our nation, it’s a war we can’t afford to lose.