“Not Anti-Union”: Shaking Up Springfield, Shaking Down the State

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“I’m probably .01 percent.” – Bruce Rauner, asked if he is part of the wealthiest 1%

Chicago equity “salesman” Bruce Rauner succeeded in his first ever election last November with 50.3 percent of the vote, spending nearly $36 per voter according to the Chicago Tribune (which endorsed Rauner), on a vague platform of lowering taxes, attracting business, and “shak[ing] up Springfield.” His plan was short on details even by the usual low political standards. “Maybe,” wrote Carol Felsenthal in a deep-digging biography in the Chicago Magazine, the “mystery” is “part of the plan.”

Mystery Solved

Former Illinois governor Jim Edgar, a fellow Republican who endorsed another candidate in the primary, had implied doubt whether Rauner could “hit the ground running.” But that is exactly what the new Governor did. Rauner’s first action was a hiring freeze and a halt to whole categories of state spending, excluding of course his wife’s chief of staff ($100,000), the 25-year-old sister of his top campaign aide ($70,000), or his new education aide ($250,000).

Unions and other economic justice advocates had warned that Rauner’s election would finally spell the arrival of a reactionary national agenda pushed by the Koch brothers, Chambers of Commerce, and other wealthy special interests. Former labor strongholds in nearby Michigan and Wisconsin, as well as Indiana, recently joined Iowa as so-called “right-to-work” states, where workers who do not join but are represented by unions pay no fee while receiving the same representation, pay raises, and benefits of unionization for free.

These laws undermine unions’ ability to attract dues-paying members and stretch the unions’ finances to the breaking point, a fact of life that is not lost on union opponents, even those like Rauner who are “not anti-union.” Not coincidentally, wages in “right-to-work” states are lower and working conditions worse. A recent University of Illinois study found that Illinois wages are 13 percent higher than neighboring “right-to-work” Indiana, and a University of Michigan study found that occupational fatalities are 34 percent higher in “right-to-work” states. There is no discernable difference in job growth between “right-to-work” states and “free bargaining” states.

Rauner has repeatedly said he does not support a statewide “right-to-work” law, which the state legislature would almost surely resist. Yet Rauner has been personally touring the state, speaking at commercial clubs and $1000 a plate dinners, promoting “empowerment zones,” in which local city and county governments could decide to become “right-to-work,” in direct violation of federal law. The same University of Illinois study found the likely result would be lower incomes, increased racial inequality, and shrinking local economies, including tax bases.

‘Empowerment’ for Some

Gov. Rauner’s first state of the state address declared war on unions, and his budget followed up with deep cuts to everything from higher education (30%) to services for the homeless, autistic, mentally ill, and others ($423 million) – some programs, such as assistance to orphans, losing funding altogether. Presumably these Illinoisans did not feel empowered but the opposite. Rauner’s cuts to Medicaid alone total $1.5 billion, including adult dental care, dialysis, and hemophilia care, among other programs that actually save the State money in the long run by heading off emergency room visits and other more expensive care.

As a candidate, Rauner promised to lower local property taxes. As Governor, his legislative package links lower property taxes to “empowerment zones,” which Rauner touts as “empowering” communities to determine “how they negotiate” with employees – in other words, saving money by lowering employee pay. Another Rauner proposal, however, would cut into these same local budgets by as much as 20 percent, according to the State Register Journal, by slashing hundreds of millions from the Local Government Distribution Fund. Small towns would likely be hit hardest, and many would be forced to choose between reducing police and firefighters or raising taxes.

As a candidate, Rauner blamed high workers compensation insurance rates for driving business out of Illinois, the sole evidence being that rates are higher in Illinois than other states. But according to a March 4 study by ProPublica and NPR, this comparison is misleading. Since 2003, as many as 33 states have slashed workers comp benefits and passed laws making it harder for injured workers to claim compensation. Florida alone has cut payments to its most severely disabled workers by 65 percent. The reality is workers comp insurance rates are at a 25-year low point nationwide. As a result, simply by remaining the same, Illinois rates would appear “higher.”

All over the country, legislative assaults by the billionaire Koch brothers and their many affiliated organizations have meant a wholesale denial of help to injured workers when they need it most, driving many into poverty, and a massive shift of cost from employers to taxpayers. As governor, Rauner has proposed many of these same changes for Illinois: restrictions on which injuries are compensable, new limits on the amounts of compensation, and raising the standard of causation, so that an employee must prove that the injury was primarily and not only partly caused by workplace accidents or conditions.

‘Not anti-union,” just anti-worker

Rauner soon signed an executive order banning the “fair share” fees that nonmember employees legally must pay for union representation. He may have assumed the new state comptroller he appointed, Republican Leslie Munger, would back him. She did not, declaring that she would follow state law and collect the “fair share” fees. Rauner then ordered that nonmember pay in his department be reduced by the ”fair share” amount, violating labor contracts, throwing the nonmembers’ taxes and accrual of benefits into chaos, and causing unions to defend the nonmembers. Former nonmembers lined up to join their presumptive unions.

Rauner’s austerity plan further includes repealing the State Prevailing Wage Law. “Illinois sets minimum ‘prevailing wages’ for workers on state and local construction projects. These prevailing wages are significantly more than minimum wages. Over the years, prevailing wages have generally been set to match the union scale, even though a majority of construction workers in Illinois are not part of a union,” explains Rauner’s legislative proposal – as if this were a bad thing. This law provides significant wage protection for all workers, union or not, and guarantees local economic health. Without it, state and local governments would be pressured to undercut union wages by hiring the lowest bidder in a race to the bottom, many Illinois workers would earn significantly less, pay less in taxes, and spend less in their local communities.

(Part Two continues in the next issue with Gov. Rauner’s eyebrow-raising career in wealth, connections to the billionaire Koch brothers and their nationwide rightwing agenda, political bullying of his own party, and the exorbitant costs of access to the new administration, as well as why he hates unions so much)

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