Executive Director Reports

The twisted logic of arm-twisting

 Roberta Lynch

Roberta Lynch

April-May 2015

Bruce Rauner recently boasted that Illinois’ fiscal crisis provides him with “leverage” to force the changes he wants to make.

But, truth is, there’s a mighty fine line between “leverage” and political blackmail – and the evidence suggests the governor has galloped right across it.

Look at what’s happening in villages, cities and counties statewide. The “change” the governor says he wants is the end of all union membership. Most state legislators are reluctant to back such a brazen assault on workers’ rights. So the governor is focused on twisting the arms of local governments – many of them very small and virtually defenseless – to compel them to back his union demolition schemes.

It’s a clever scheme. First, Gov. Rauner put forth a FY 16 budget plan that cuts state funding for local governments by 50 percent. That’s a lot of dollars gone from governmental bodies that have few revenue alternatives outside the politically-fraught path of raising property taxes. A 50 percent cut in state funding would cost Aurora more than $9 million, Belleville more than $2 million, Bloomington some $3.7 million, Galesburg $1.5 million – and the list goes on.

After sowing panic, he began travelling the state to promote his so-called “turnaround” agenda. The message to local government officials was clear – to have any hope of getting their funding restored, they would have to pass a resolution backing the governor’s agenda. To help them along, he gave them a copy of the resolution and insisted they couldn’t change a word.

Despite Illinois’ budget challenges, Rauner has devoted much of his time to bopping around the state on his disinformation mission, pushing for support for his “turnaround agenda” – “right-to-work” zones, cutting benefits to injured workers, eliminating the prevailing wage for construction workers and taking away bargaining rights from public employees.

The governor claims his program to eliminate unions and drive down workers’ wages would improve the economic prospects of local communities, but there’s little evidence to back him up. In fact, states with similar policies on average have significantly lower household income, higher rates of workplace fatalities, less access to health care and higher levels of poverty. And even the Chamber of Commerce has said that Illinois doesn’t need such “right-to-work” laws in order to compete with neighboring states.

The good news – very good news – is that, with a little help from union members, many local officials are refusing to bow to the governor’s tactics. In more than two dozen cities and counties, union members have packed board and council meetings, presenting powerful testimony about the damage “right-to-work” zones would do to their jobs and communities.

In some areas, local officials are flat-out refusing to even consider the resolution, insisting on the right to set their own agenda. The Dixon City Council adopted an alternative resolution that explicitly rejects Rauner’s program. And Joliet’s newly elected mayor, Bob O’Dekirk, strongly criticized the governor’s scheme, saying  “Union wages support every business in Joliet while corporate profits of non-union companies may never find their way back into our economy.”

While some local governments, usually very small ones, have passed Rauner’s resolution, growing numbers of local elected officials are demonstrating that their commitment is to their constituents, not to the big poobah in Springfield. Political blackmail isn’t going to fly with them.

Hopefully, it will be rejected just as decisively by members of the state legislature, where Rauner’s also trying his hand at strong arming. His budget plan makes massive cuts to essential services for vulnerable individuals, including autism treatment programs, indigent burials, breast cancer screening, smoking cessation, and assistance for children with complex medical needs. Next on the chopping block would be treatment for the mentally ill, community disability services, programs for homeless youth, health care assistance and more.

But here’s where that blackmail dressed up as “leverage” comes in. Rauner has strongly hinted that if lawmakers will back state legislation to drive down workers’ wages and weaken unions, he’ll support new revenue to mitigate the draconian service cuts. That’s a devil’s bargain if ever there was one.

It’s playing poker with human lives as the chips: Individuals with autism, desperately ill children on feeding tubes, families who can’t afford to bury a loved one, all these and more will be made to suffer unless the General Assembly caves in to the governor’s demands for legislation that chops away at the rights, benefits and income of Illinois workers.

If elected officials in the tiny town of Pecatonica, or in the Republican stronghold of Naperville, or in far downstate Vandalia, or in numerous other local governments across the state can find the courage to stand up to Rauner’s coercive tactics, we can certainly insist that our state legislators do the same. With everyone including the governor, all too aware that new revenues are urgently needed to restore Illinois to economic health, let’s make sure those revenues are found without offering up our state’s working families as this season’s sacrificial lambs.