Executive Director Reports

Threat to collective bargaining hits hard here at home

This past winter, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans in the legislature launched a frontal assault on collective bargaining rights in their state, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn was quick to criticize our neighbors to the north.

"That's not the way we do things in Illinois," said Quinn, proudly declaring himself a true believer in the right to organize. Not only Democrats, but even some Illinois Republicans were careful not to put their stamp of approval on these assaults. Of course it's easy to be high-minded about issues across your border, but the real test comes when they hit home.

When Illinois faced its own budget shortfall, Quinn simply announced he wouldn't pay the contractually negotiated raises due to state employees represented by AFSCME and other unions. Then when an arbitrator declared the state in violation of the AFSCME collective bargaining agreement, Quinn refused to abide by the binding decision. Instead he's seeking a court order to overturn it.

Next he proclaimed that he is also walking away from the nolayoff, no-closure agreement in the contract by laying off almost 2,000 state employees and closing seven state facilities.

Going a step further, the governor then asked a court to prevent the arbitrator from even deciding whether the contract has been violated.

Quinn's defense for all of this is simple and dangerous: The legislature didn't appropriate enough money for him to fund the provisions of union contracts in 13 agencies.

The implication of the governor's position is profound. If upheld by the courts, it would allow the state legislature, a city council, county board, or board of trustees to slip out of any agreement made by their executives. All they'd have to do is leave the funding out of their appropriations. Suddenly that pay or benefit increase you thought you had wouldn't be there, even if you had given something up in return.

How could any bargaining committee have confidence in any agreement they reached? Could we ever again trust elected officials to stand behind the agreements they sign if they can just walk away when the going gets tough? Who among us would want to find out?

But if Quinn prevails, a bargaining committee would be forced to do exactly that and put its fate in the hands of notoriously fickle legislative bodies at every level of government.

In this instance, the state does have the money.

State revenues are projected to exceed budget estimates by more than $600 million, double the amount it would take to fund the contracts for all unions.

Among the legislative leaders, only Senate President John Cullerton has acknowledged from the beginning that the budget needs repair. Senate Republican leader Chris Radogno, whose own staff received a 7 percent pay increase this year, says state employee shouldn't get any.

House Speaker Mike Madigan has indicated a willingness to look at fixes, but only by transferring money from other lines in the budget, not by dipping into projected new revenues.

House Republican leader Tom Cross's only response to the budget shortfall is to propose $500 million in tax cuts for Illinois businesses.

The legislators who expressed abhorrence at the actions taken by neighboring states have been strangely silent about the assault on bargaining rights taking place right here.

It's time for every AFSCME member, regardless of where you work, to call every Illinois legislator and remind them of our insistence that they stand up for the right to bargain collectively.

Our legislators must let their caucus leaders know that their party should not be accomplices in the governor's effort to undermine collective bargaining.

When Gov. Quinn declared that the frontal assault on bargaining rights was not the way we do things in Illinois, most people thought he meant that collective bargaining rights were inviolable and would not be abridged here.

But it's becoming increasingly apparent that what he really meant is that instead of frontal assaults, we'll come in the back door, in this case through the court system, to accomplish the same ends sought by Scott Walker and other governors who came in through the front door.

AFSCME and other unions will continue to vigorously oppose the governor in the courts, but the war, and, believe me, this is a war, needs to be waged on all fronts, not just with a battery of lawyers in the courtroom.

In the coming weeks we need battalions of troops on the phones and in the streets demanding that the governor and legislature remove the dagger at our back, honor our contract, and prove that Illinois is not Wisconsin.

Though we know Gov. Quinn's voice won't be among them, those other eloquent voices that rose to the defense of Wisconsin workers need to be heard in Illinois, and right now!