Executive Director Reports

Executive Director Report: Taking aim at us

Anti-union forces seek to divide and conquer

Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

At every step of Bruce Rauner’s all-out crusade to wipe out labor unions—especially public sector unions—in our state, he found a ready ally in the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI).

The dark-money group infamously staffed his administration, acted as his proxies when he tried to impose his contract demands on state employees and recruited plaintiffs for the lawsuit he filed claiming that it was unconstitutional to require represented employees who chose not to join the union to instead pay a fair-share fee.

Roundly defeated in his run for reelection in 2018, Rauner decamped to Florida. He was embarrassed at the ballot box, but hoped that his anti-labor legacy would live on through that lawsuit—Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31—which prevailed at the U.S. Supreme Court. With employees no longer required to pay union dues or fees in any form, Rauner predicted they would leave their unions in droves.

That mass exodus never happened. Instead, union members doubled down to defend the rights and benefits we’d won by standing together for many decades, pledging to remain “AFSCME Strong” in the years to come.

It wasn’t for lack of trying by the IPI. They deluged public service union members with mailers claiming they’d be better off on their own rather than coming together in a union to improve their wages, benefits and working conditions.

Fortunately, AFSCME members weren’t buying. They found creative ways to dispose of IPI “trash,” many sharing entertaining images on social media.

Why is the IPI so committed to weakening public employee unions? In large part because they want to abolish public employee pensions, and they know that strong unions are the chief force standing in their way. If they could weaken us, their odds of ending pensions would go way up.

New kid on the block: Freedom Foundation

Unfortunately, the forces that want to silence workers’ voices and rob our retirement security aren’t going away. In fact, there’s a new kid on the anti-union block in Illinois: The Freedom Foundation. Based on the West Coast, it’s spent years pushing workers to “opt out” using mailers, phone calls, videos, emails and even home visits, all with the sole goal of getting members to quit their union.

Now the Freedom Foundation has announced that it’s going national and AFSCME members in Illinois have begun to report its materials turning up in their mailboxes. Its message is pretty much the same as the IPI, but it’s a little slicker and more persistent. Its website shows little interest in anything else in the world except taking down public employee unions.

Both groups get lots of money from unknown sources who share an obsession with destroying the only source of organized power for workers in our country, their unions. Like Rauner, they want to further consolidate power at the top and make sure that the rest of us don’t have a fighting chance to have our voices heard and our concerns addressed.

They want to convince us that if we disagree with something our union does, instead of recognizing that we’re not all going to agree on everything all the time, we should just quit, undermining the solidarity that’s so essential to all the progress our union has made on so many fronts.

In effect, every revocation of union membership is a victory for the Freedom Foundation, the IPI, and of course, for Bruce Rauner, down there in sunny Florida.

New assault on pensions

The IPI and Rauner have something else to cheer for now: Republicans in the state legislature, as well as some Republican gubernatorial candidates, are renewing their attacks on public employee pensions.

At a recent news conference, Illinois House Minority Leader Jim Durkin attacked Governor Pritzker for refusing to back “any kind of reduction in the growth of [pension] benefits.”

Vowing to wipe out the state’s constitutional pension protection clause that led to previous cuts being overturned, Durkin said, “I would change the constitution and I would be the one who sponsored it, absolutely.”

Rep. Darren Bailey went even further. Boasting that he has already sponsored such a measure, the Republican candidate for governor praised a plan that would immediately freeze all pensions at what’s earned to date and dump employees into a 401(k)-style plan. Pension cost-of-living increases, or COLAs, would be given only to those earning less than $50,000 annually and, even then, limited to just 1% per year.

Taken together, we likely have two tough fights on our hands: Against those who want to weaken our union with their “opt out” campaigns and those who want to take away our retirement security with their pension reduction schemes. The stakes are nothing less than the balance of power in our state: Will working people keep a voice and some dignity in retirement for ourselves? Or will the anti-worker forces of wealth and greed take every last scrap of influence? As we look ahead to 2022, let’s make sure we’re ready to do battle on both fronts.