Rauner’s war on unions brings Illinois to the brink

Photo by Grace Donnelly

It’s cold comfort, but in a sense, we in Illinois are lucky.  When we get tired of worrying about how badly a multimillionaire with autocratic tendencies will muck up the nation as president, we can distract ourselves by watching an autocratic multimillionaire governor bring the state to the brink.

And when we grow weary of the dreadful question, “How crazy is Donald Trump?” we can ask whether Bruce Rauner is really crazy enough to shut down state government just so he can stick it to unions.

All eyes are on the expiring stopgap budget, which Gov. Rauner refuses to renew without at least something from his “turnaround agenda” being enacted.  He spent tens of millions of dollars getting elected two years ago, and tens of millions more defeating a handful of Democratic legislators this year, and he wants something for his money.

He’s settled on term limits and a property tax freeze as his bottom line, though neither item is going to lift the state’s economy, which is Rauner’s stated goal.  Rich Miller captures the absurdity of Rauner’s position: “When a prison is about to close is he really gonna say, ‘We’ll be glad to keep it open if we get term limits’?”

Rauner has already shown how far he’s willing to go – and how little he cares about the consequences for his constituents – when he blew a $200 million hole in the budget of Chicago Public Schools by vetoing a bill that would have begun to provide CPS with the same kind of state support for pension costs that every other school district in the state gets.

Rauner issued that veto because he didn’t like something Senate President John Cullerton said in a press conference (though he never bothered to seek clarification from Cullerton).  At bottom, though, his move reflected his hatred for the Chicago Teachers Union.  It’s worth recalling that it was his bitter disappointment over Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s decision to settle the 2012 teachers strike that drove Rauner into politics.

Now Rauner seems to be intent on provoking a strike by state workers.  This will show us once and for all how tough he is.  Maybe Trump will name him Secretary of Labor.

In January, Rauner walked away from negotiations with AFSCME Council 31, which represents 38,000 state workers, and asked a labor board to rule that talks were at an impasse.  That would allow him to impose his “last, best, final offer” – which workers could then either accept or strike over.

Rauner’s final offer included a four-year wage freeze and a doubling of employees’ health care costs.  It would amount to a $10,000 pay cut for the average worker, according to AFSCME spokesperson Anders Lindall.

Accepting terms like that would be a devastating defeat for the union.  On the other hand, AFSCME is not eager to strike, in part because the union understands how a work stoppage would impact the people who are served by its members.  It’s also scary. It’s the labor-management equivalent of going to war.

After extensive hearings, an administrative law judge issued a mixed ruling in September.  Judge Sarah Kerley found an impasse on some issues, including subcontracting – Rauner wants to eliminate language requiring the administration to demonstrate reasons of economy or efficiency before privatizing public services –  as well as overtime rules; she recommended allowing Rauner to impose his terms on those issues.

But on major issues including wages and health care, Kerley found no impasse and recommended the state be ordered to return to the bargaining table.

Kerley also found that the state had failed to respond to union requests for information about its proposals – technically an unfair labor practice.  Among the issues on which the state refused to provide information, Lindall said, was how its proposal for merit pay would work.  (Recall that merit pay was the issue over which Rauner thought Emanuel should fight to the finish with the CTU.)

In November, however, the Illinois Labor Relations Board – where four out of five members have been appointed or reappointed by Rauner – rejected Kerley’s approach and took one suggested by Rauner’s attorneys: deciding that the impasse over subcontracting was significant enough to declare the entire negotiations deadlocked.  The board did find, however, that the state had failed to provide legally required information.

Rauner hasn’t declared all-out war yet but he’s fired several shots across the bow, seeking to implement minor contract proposals.  Most bizarrely, according to Lindall, he’s been issuing press releases claiming credit for implementing proposals like bereavement leave and a workplace safety task force that were originally put forth by AFSCME.  Rauner’s merit pay proposal has been collapsed to a $1,000 bonus for good attendance – not particularly generous in light of the $10,000 pay cut on the table.

AFSCME has appealed the labor board ruling in court, and given Kerley’s opinion, the union has an arguable case.  Meanwhile, Circuit Court Judge Robert P. LeChien on Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order barring Rauner from unilaterally imposing contract terms.  LeChien held that Rauner was in violation of a pre-negotiation agreement that extended the terms of the contract.

Rauner’s idea of running the state like a business seems to mean that he’s the boss and what he says goes.  That’s not actually how it’s supposed to work: we’re supposed to have checks and balances. Unfortunately, that could mean no state budget this year or next, with calamitous effects on social service agencies and state universities, among other institutions.

But at least in this contract negotiation, the courts could prevent the governor from acting like a dictator.  Then we could start worrying about Trump again.