A state of crisis

Gov. Bruce Rauner

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Governor Rauner speaks to City Council members regarding labor unions in Chicago and Illinois on May 6, 2015.

The State of the State address, and the run-up to it over the past week, confirmed what we’ve seen throughout Bruce Rauner’s first year as governor: His anti-union “turnaround agenda” is not just his top priority, it’s his only priority.

In Wednesday’s address, Rauner never alluded to the multiple and growing crises he’s created by engineering a state budget impasse. Instead he reiterated his demand for “structural reform” that will unleash the state’s “competitiveness” before he’ll let a budget pass. The idea is essentially an extreme version of Reaganite trickle-down economics, under which the rich get richer, the poor get poorer and the middle class disappears.

Over the past year, Rauner has created a human service crisis, with the state’s social service infrastructure now teetering on the brink of collapse. Lutheran Social Services, the largest agency in the state, recently announced the elimination of 30 programs serving nearly 5,000 seniors and other vulnerable residents; the 149-year-old agency is now struggling for survival. Catholic Charities is said to be planning a similar retrenchment.

He’s created a crisis for higher education, with Chicago State University – another 149-year-old institution and the only majority-black state university in Illinois – close to bankruptcy. (Earlier this month, Rauner responded by insulting the school’s new leadership.) And other state schools are planning major program cuts. Rauner’s calls for increased educational opportunity in Wednesday’s speech fell particularly flat in the face of this reality, which he simply ignored.

The state’s backlog of unpaid bills is projected to reach $9 billion by the end of the fiscal year, and credit rating agencies are warning of further downgrades for the state.

Rauner is consummately sanguine about all this, as if everything is going according to plan. Indeed, this seems to be his plan – “short-term pain for long-term gain” – with the expectation that all this suffering will create pressure for legislators to cave to his ultimatums.

This was underscored last week with proposals to address growing crises at Chicago Public Schools and for the state’s pension plans.

On Tuesday, Republicans presented a plan for Chicago schools which would give an emergency management board the power to declare bankruptcy and break union contracts. On Wednesday, Rauner backed Senate President John Cullerton’s pension plan, but threw in – as a “key point” – that it would require a law removing salary and wages from topics permitted in collective bargaining.

Rauner seems to view every pressing problem facing the state as a wedge to use in his crusade to weaken and ultimately eliminate unions.

So it’s not surprising that the governor who embraces budget impasse as a political strategem would try to declare a negotiating impasse in contract talks with the state’s largest public employee union. That would give him the right to impose the state’s final offer; members of AFSCME Council 31 would have the choice of accepting that offer or going on strike.

Reports indicate that the final offer is significantly less attractive than deals the Rauner administration has reached with smaller unions. It includes steep health- care cost increases coupled with a pay freeze, along with a merit pay proposal that would leave compensation hikes up to supervisors.

When he vetoed a bill last year that would have sent deadlocked negotiations to arbitration, Rauner promised to continue negotiating in good faith. Union people say he’s not keeping that promise.

And once again, it’s services for the state’s most vulnerable residents – in this case those delivered by frontline state workers – that are threatened in order to promote Rauner’s aggressive anti-unionism.

This is the pattern. “Rauner has used vulnerable people, including children, working families, seniors and people with disabilities, as pawns to win anti-union concessions,” said James Muhammad of SEIU Healthcare. “His actions have disproportionately affected women and people of color.”

Can he pull it off? Can he hang tough until the opposition wilts? I have my doubts.

It’s not just the growing unease of his prime constituency, the business class, which craves stability and cringes as the state’s credit rating drops.

It’s his basic approach. He’s not a bridge builder. He’s an attacker and a divider.

We see Rauner repeatedly trying to split Mayor Rahm Emanuel from Speaker Michael Madigan and Senate President Cullerton. We see him trying to split African- Americans from the Democratic Party and downstate Democrats from Chicago Democrats. We see him trying to split conservative and moderate Republicans. And of course he’s trying to pit union and non-union workers against each other.

But what he’s accomplished so far is uniting people in opposition to him: Democrats in Springfield with public employee unions, who’ve repeatedly been at loggerheads in previous years, along with human service providers and advocates for a multitude of community interests. Early on, by going after the prevailing wage and promoting local right-to-work districts, he brought private-sector unions into the fray. Now he’s riling up college students and professors.

What Rauner has going for him is an incredibly hard head, a monomaniacal obsession, the power of his office and a whole lot of money with which to buy and intimidate people.

And he has one more advantage: Unlike professional politicians, including most legislators, unlike state workers, unlike people who need state services or students who need financial aid, Rauner could care less whether state government stays open or shuts down. Ultimately, this kind of thing only works when it’s clear the hostage-taker is willing to sacrifice the hostage.