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Labor Takes One On The Chin from Illinois Democrats

Dec 5, 2012

Bill Knight

Illinois’ friends of labor must be feeling a double-whammy double-cross , as Gov. Pat Quinn last month terminated the state’s contract with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and House Speaker Mike Madigan revived his dormant resolution to limit raises to people who work for the state.

In 40 years of collective bargaining, Pat Quinn is the first and only Illinois governor to terminate a union contract.

Although it may be tempting to blame workers for the state’s fiscal problems, it’s unreasonable for taxpayers – or the many schools, health-care providers and vendors of all types who are dealing with late state payments and related woes – to expect people who work for a living to shoulder so much of the burden (or to expect that’s either the problem or the solution.) To balance budgets, states can raise more revenues or cut spending. Governing is harder than politicking, so legislatures rarely risk raising taxes or other revenue sources, and they rarely risk cutting programs constituents expect.

Tough. Lawmakers should do both, in a just way, and not shelter campaign contributors from the fallout. Granting corporate subsidies at a time of budget shortfalls is like surrendering to blackmailers. Spending on non-essentials when roads, public safety, etc. are in need is backward. Legislators should confess past mistakes, admit the financial situation, include all the facts and likely consequences, and ask for citizen input.

When everyday Illinoisans see that the average pay for a state worker here is not exorbitant ($60,000 – which is less than Iowa’s state workers – according to AFSCME executive director Henry Bayer), they’ll realize that they’re not greedy. When everyday Illinoisans see that AFSCME already has agreed to concessions ranging from health-care givebacks to deferred raises, they’ll realize that the union negotiators aren’t being irrational

Still, Quinn on Nov. 20 terminated AFSCME’s contract as if that will save a treasury. A few days later, the proposal to limit state workers’ wage increases – introduced a year ago by Madigan (the Chicago Democrat) – was revived and sent to a committee for hearing, as if that will achieve anything but gumming up the process.

The state’s largest public workers union, AFSCME represents about 40,000 state employees, from prison guards and veterans caregivers to child protection and employment security staffers – 82% of the workers under the governor’s authority. AFCSME’s been bargaining for almost a year. The previous, four-year pact expired on June 30, but that contract had been extended by mutual agreement. Until Nov. 20.

Bayer said, “In 40 years of collective bargaining, Pat Quinn is the first and only Illinois governor to terminate a union contract. His action will heighten employee frustration, provoke instability in the workplace and make settling a contract more difficult.”

Short term, Quinn’s move has little real impact. State law ensures the terms and conditions of employment for state workers continue. Long term, however, it’s either an example of lousy leadership or a revealing symbol of power brokers’ real priorities.

In one sense, Quinn’s action hints at something good: It’s not political, like Washington obstructionism has been. After all, Quinn benefited from AFSCME’s support in the 2010 election, which he narrowly won against Republicans’ dreadful candidate, State Sen. Bill Brady. But in another sense, his move and Madigan’s are bad: They’re not practical. State government needs a buy-in from its employees as well as taxpayers and businesses if a real shared-sacrifice approach to fiscal troubles is feasible.

Also, Madigan voiced his annoyance with the executive branch negotiating and the legislature paying for resulting obligations, possibly creating a constitutional conflict. Still Madigan’s measure passed November 28 and moved to the state Senate, where it was assigned to the Executive committee.

Madigan and Quinn aren’t expected to grant all union proposals, of course. But they’re expected to live up to their party’s alliance with labor and to bargain in good faith. Bayer said, “We understand the fiscal realities of the state. We’re not asking you to give us a pay increase, we’re asking you to let us bargain that. Our union wants constructive engagement, but the governor is choosing confrontation instead.”

Compared to the union’s flexibility, state government’s stubbornness hasn’t gone unnoticed by the rank and file. Workers have been angry for months. Quinn sought layoffs and the shutdown of some state facilities, unilaterally killed scheduled raises, and has shown no willingness to pay back the money state government took from state employee pensions for decades. Yet there has been no state employee work stoppage affecting safety or services to the elderly, kids, and so on. However, as state workers try to protect their health care, retirement and promises on which their lives were planned, they’re understandably getting more upset.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.

Bill Knight’s newspaper columns are archived at billknightcolumn.blogspot.com