Executive Director Reports

Time to fight back -- We have to tell our story

Business leaders, editorial writers, anti-government elected officials - all have their sights set on us. They want our wages cut, our pension slashed, even our basic right to bargain eroded.

There are guns blazing at public employees from every direction.

And the arms suppliers - the infamous Koch brothers, noted backers of the nefarious Badger State Gov. Walker; the corporate-funded ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council; and others of their ilk - have the deepest of pockets.

Here in Illinois the Civic Federation, the Commercial Club of Chicago, Caterpillar CEO Douglas Oberhelman, and even the owner of Jimmy John's, whose pockets are stuffed with as much bread as his sandwiches, have all provided firepower to bombard public-sector workers.

And politicians from both parties have enlisted in their army.

Only four years ago, after having brought the economy to its knees, the bankers, hedge fund managers and other magnates of the financial world were in disrepute for the destruction they wrought. But these honchos didn't slink off into the corner and allow themselves to be exiled for their misdeeds. Instead they deftly pivoted to aim the guns, which had been pointed in their direction, at us.

All of a sudden the people who destroyed millions of jobs are calling themselves "job creators." Suddenly, the sluggish economy wasn't the result of reckless investments or an unsustainable housing bubble.

No, according to their narrative, the problem is the burden imposed by public employees, whose all-powerful unions had achieved compensation levels the public could no longer afford.

First, they went after the bargaining rights of teachers, then pensions for new hires, then pensions for current employees; then pensions and insurance benefits for all retirees. And thanks to a compliant legislature and a supine governor, they are making steady gains.

On the surface it may all seem inevitable. It isn't.

Despite the millions of dollars spent to attack teachers, and Mayor 1% Rahm Emanuel's use of the bully pulpit, teachers remain widely popular among Chicago voters.

Similarly after spending millions of dollars trying convince the public that our pensions need to be slashed, polls show that, while voters think we should pay more for our retirement, there is not broad support for cutting benefits.

The problem for us is that we haven't yet been able to get the real facts out to the public.

Illinois is indeed in a deep financial hole, and that provides the justification for cuts to employee pay and benefits, as well as to important health, education and public-safety programs.

Emanuel is trying to convince Chicago taxpayers that the choice is cutting vital services or raising property taxes to pay for pensions. Gov. Quinn and legislative leaders are peddling the same message: it's either lower benefits for employees or fewer services for the public.

If those were the only alternatives we would be doomed. They're not.

Two-thirds of Illinois corporations pay not a dime in state income tax; and even those who do pay something get government handouts they don't need.

Take one example: last year the State of Illinois gave the Chicago Mercantile Exchange an $85 million tax break. Even assuming the value of that giveaway wouldn't grow over the 30-year amortization period of state-funded pension plans, if that money, which now goes into already-full pockets of a relative handful of CME shareholders, were appropriated into the pension funds, it would generate $9.6 billion.

The list of such giveaways abounds, yet no one's saying the state can no longer afford these handouts to folks who don't need them.

Our state's tax system is upside down. When you factor in income, sales, property and other taxes, folks on the bottom and in the middle of the income scale are paying a higher percentage of their paychecks than people at the top. That needs to be changed.

The corporate chieftains who complain about Illinois taxes and sing the praises of Indiana fail to mention that, according to a recent study, if the Land of Lincoln adopted its neighbor's tax structure Illinois would have $6 billion more each year to help fund education, ensure public safety and provide for other vital services.

Rich people aren't paying their fair share of taxes, and that's robbing Illinois citizens of the services they need.

We need to do as the corporate chieftains did after taking some heavy body blows. We need to come back swinging.

We don't have their deep pockets, which pay for a nonstop media barrage and gain them access to a lot of back rooms, but we do have the truth on our side. And we have a public which has the same interest in the continuation of vital services as we do, and has a sense of fairness that's not part of the other side's calculations.

It's going to be up to every one of us, in whatever way we can, to tell our story - to remind our friends and neighbors of the vital work we do, to stop being put on the defensive and to take the offensive against politicians who are shielding the wealthy and dumping on us. We're not the problem, we're a very big part of the solution.