PONTIAC, Ill. — It’s the latest front in the continuing battle over organized labor’s influence, but what’s happening in Illinois looks nothing like the juggernaut unleashed in other Midwestern states where conservative statehouses have stripped power from unions with barely a second thought.
In this blue state, where labor is strong and has been for more than a hundred years, new Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner is trying another way of cutting unions down to size. He’s pitching city councils, county commissioners and business groups on the idea of local “empowerment zones,” in which voters could approve making union membership voluntary, rather than mandatory, at unionized workplaces in their communities.
“The special interests have got to be stopped,” Rauner told local officials during a speech in rural Livingston County, one of dozens of stops on a campaign-like tour that has stretched for weeks. “That’s the key to turning our state around.”
This town-by-town approach to expanding right-to-work, rather than state action, has been tried only in a few other places, none of them like Illinois, and it’s not clear it will work. Standing-room-only crowds of protesters have pushed back against any local action, and such zones would still require approval by the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which seems unlikely.
However, the effort is attracting national attention as Republicans look for creative new ways to push pro-business, anti-union legislation beyond the borders of the nation’s red states, and as organized labor tries to hold its ground.
The campaign also has conservatives across the U.S. watching Rauner himself, who seems to revel in the spotlight of taking head-on a Democratic rival bigger than any of his Midwestern counterparts have faced.
Though Rauner’s proposals are less sweeping than the major anti-union laws passed in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, the obstacles are greater. Workers in Illinois belong to unions at the highest rate in the Midwest, Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature and even Republicans have long taken money from labor unions.
When the board in heavily Republican Livingston County, about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, took up a resolution in support of Rauner’s plan, some 400 union members tried to jam into boardroom of a historic downtown courthouse, forcing county commissioners to move to a larger community building down the street. When that space still wasn’t big enough, the meeting was postponed.
“I think (Rauner) is in for a rude awakening in Illinois,” said Jason Snow, a 35-year-old member of the Iron Workers’ Local 112.
Similar scenes have played out in other towns in recent weeks.
“I think he has awakened the labor movement in Illinois, and they’re up on their toes,” said Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan.
Rauner’s office says about three dozen local governments, most in small cities or less-populated counties, have approved resolutions in support of the governor’s agenda. Dozens others have tabled or voted it down.
Rauner says his proposed labor changes — which also could include ending collective bargaining for public employees and eliminating prevailing wage agreements covering government-funded projects — would let Illinois better compete with surrounding states for new businesses. He says local governments could also better manage their budgets.
Rauner insists he’s not anti-union, calling such claims “false, baloney, wrong.”
Senate President John Cullerton, a Chicago Democrat, has said the empowerment zones — which have been approved in Kentucky — are a no-go in his chamber.
But Rauner insists that favorable votes by more cities will put pressure on legislators to allow the zones.
It isn’t just Democrats who are aligned with organized labor, however, deepening the challenge for the governor.
In Livingston County, which Rauner carried overwhelmingly in the last election, all 24 members of the county board are Republicans, but the area also is home to a state prison with hundreds of unionized employees.
Joe Steichen, a Republican board member who also happens to belong to the Operating Engineers Local 150, said the county has a healthy budget surplus and business environment achieved without trying to “destroy” the working class.
“A lot of these people I grew up with,” said Steichen, who held a “100% Union” sign during the county board’s brief attempt to hold a meeting. “You don’t do that. Somebody’s down, you don’t kick them.”
Board Chairman Marty Fannin, who worked at the Pontiac Correctional Center for 27 years and says he owes what he has to unions, says he sees some virtue in Rauner’s plan and is thinking about whether to put it on the board’s next agenda.
“No offense, but anything we can get out of the state’s hands and control ourselves, we appreciate that,” Fannin said.
Whatever the outcome, Senate Republican Leader Christine Radogno called Rauner’s approach “gutsy to say the least.”
“It’s sort of been the unspoken rule that we can’t even talk about it here in Illinois,” she said. “Whether at the end of the day we actually adopt it … He has certainly engendered some discussion.”