February 12, 2015
By Steven Wishnia
Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has declared war on state employees’ ability to have an effective union.
On Feb. 9, he issued an executive order that said the state would no longer deduct “fair-share fees” from the paychecks of workers who aren’t union members, and hired a prominent law firm with a reputation for union-busting to have the practice declared unconstitutional.
The governor, a multimillionaire private-equity investor, framed the issue as one of freedom. “Forced union dues are a critical cog in the corrupt bargain that is crushing taxpayers. Government union bargaining and government union political activity are inexorably linked,” he said. “An employee who is forced to pay unfair share dues is being forced to fund political activity with which they disagree. That is a clear violation of First Amendment rights—and something that, as governor, I am duty-bound to correct.”
In reality, fair-share fees are not union dues. In union shops, they are assessed on non-members to cover the costs of representation, because unions are legally required to represent all employees within the bargaining unit. Under the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, the fees cover a “proportionate share of the costs of the collective-bargaining process, contract administration, and pursuing matters affecting wages, hours and other conditions of employment.”
They do “not include any fees for contributions related to the election or support of any candidate for political office,” Andres Lindall, a spokesperson for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents Illinois state workers, told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Council 31 leader Roberta Lynch issued a statement calling the governor’s action a “scheme to strip the rights of state workers and weaken their unions by executive order” and “a blatantly illegal abuse of power.”
While Rauner framed the issue as one of workers’ freedom to choose whether or not to support unions—the main argument used by supporters of so-called “right to work” laws that outlaw the union shop—his actual intent is to use government power undermine a more important workers’ freedom: The ability to organize effectively, so they can act collectively to win better wages and benefits, job security, and the freedom to speak out on the job, or simply not to be fired arbitrarily.
“Are people gullible enough to think this is really about a worker’s right to choose whether they pay dues to a union, as Rauner claims?” Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown wrote Feb. 9. “Or can they see through the baloney to understand that Rauner’s idea of what would make Illinois workers more competitive with other states is lower wages and benefits?”
Roberta Lynch has called the governor’s proposals“an aggressive agenda to undermine [workers’] rights to a voice on the job and in the democratic process.” In his State of the State address Feb. 4, Rauner said that the state should ban some political contributions by public employee unions and weaken prevailing-wage requirements for workers on public construction projects, and that local governments should be allowed to pass laws banning the union shop.
In this, he is part of an offensive against organized labor by state and local governments in the Midwest and Border states in the last four years. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is the public face of it, as he pushed through legislation in 2011 outlawing the union shop for public workers and decimating collective bargaining for them. Michigan and Indiana enacted “right to work” laws. A similar bill has been introduced in West Virginia, where Republicans won control of both houses of the state legislature last year. In Kentucky, where Democrats control one house of the legislature, several counties have enacted local laws banning the union shop, like the ones Rauner proposed. These may well be illegal under federal law, but a shadowy Florida outfit funded by the Koch brothers has promised to hire lawyers to defend the county governments against a court challenge.
In Indiana, the state Supreme Court last November rejectedan International Union of Operating Engineers local’s argument that the “right to work” law violated the state constitution because it forced unions to represent people who didn’t pay fair-share fees, and thus the state was forcing them to provide a service “without just compensation.” The court held that because it is federal law that requires unions to represent everyone in the workplace, the state was not the one forcing them to provide that service for free.