Illinois state workers voted in late February by an overwhelming 81 percent majority to authorize a strike. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner walked away from negotiations with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 31 more than a year ago. This left workers feeling that they had little choice but to authorize a strike for the first time in Illinois’ history.
For more than two years, Rauner has refused to pass a state budget, leaving crucial public services unfunded and in jeopardy. Five unions that represent the overwhelming majority of women and people of color working in state government are currently waiting for Rauner to settle contracts with them, but he has refused to even negotiate with AFSCME during the last year, attempting instead to impose his draconian will upon them.
Rauner, a billionaire and former hedge fund manager, tried to intimidate workers into voting against strike authorization by issuing a memo threatening to permanently replace striking workers—stealing a page from President Ronald Reagan’s anti-worker playbook when he fired air traffic controllers after they walked off the job in 1984.
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Breaking the state workers’ union—and doing away with public-sector bargaining altogether, as Gov. Scott Walker did in Wisconsin—is Rauner’s long-term agenda.
But for now, Rauner wants to force workers to accept a contract that would double their out-of-pocket cost for health insurance, adding an average of $10,000 a year to workers’ health care expenses. Combined with other slash-and-burn provisions, state workers are facing a four-year wage freeze. Rauner also wants eliminate protections from privatization, which could lead to mass layoffs.
Last year, the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which is chock-full of Rauner appointees, declared that the two sides were at impasse, freeing the Rauner administration to impose its own contract terms on workers.
After the impasse ruling, AFSCME realized that it would not only have to continue to fight the governor in the courts, but also prepare its members to strike. AFSCME also successfully sued to block the impasse ruling, thus winning additional time to get organized.
The union’s membership is spread out over a vast geographical and political landscape. Some workers live in heavily Democratic Chicago, while many others live in politically conservative parts of the state. Communities across the state rely heavily on services provided by state workers, and workers know that they are the last line of defense for these valuable public services.
“AFSCME members are public service workers who protect kids, respond to emergencies, care for veterans and more,” said AFSCME spokesperson Anders Lindall. “They want to serve their communities, not be forced out on strike, but Bruce Rauner’s refusal to negotiate has left no choice but to consider a strike as a last resort.”
In an effort to scare workers, Rauner has set up an online registration process for unemployed and under-employed people willing to scab on a strike by state workers. In this failing economy, Rauner is cynically pitting desperate jobseekers against state workers.
Rauner has also suggested using the National Guard as strikebreakers, a move that failed miserably when President Richard Nixon tried to use Guard soldiers to deliver mail during a wildcat strike by postal workers in March 1970.
AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch discussed the importance of the skilled workforce Rauner is looking to decimate:
AFSCME members investigate child abuse, care for veterans and the disabled, respond to emergencies and more. These jobs require years of experience and training. It shows just what kind of a person Bruce Rauner really is that he would seek unskilled temporary strikebreakers to do these highly sensitive jobs rather than simply sit down with state employees and work constructively to reach a fair contract settlement.
While Rauner has shown no respect whatsoever for the vital public services AFSCME workers provide, he has shown a willingness to continue giving handouts to political allies.
In early March, the Associated Press uncovered a Rauner administration scheme to pay a political appointee out of a state employee health care account that is $4 billion in arrears due to the state budget crisis. Rauner appointed Leslie Munger in 2015 to fill a vacancy created in the comptroller’s office after the unexpected death of Judy Baar Topinka. But after refusing to pay lawmakers and state bills, Munger lost a recent special election to stay on as state comptroller.
Having curried favor with Rauner for attempting to carry out his harsh austerity measures, Munger was appointed by Rauner to be one of his deputy governors. Rauner’s plan was to pay half her salary from the state employee health care account with the other half funded by federal money intended for human services, normally used to pay Medicaid providers and prescription drug costs.
The blatant hypocrisy of asking workers and communities to sacrifice while he reward his operatives and empowers fat cats to further slash services has not gone unnoticed by AFSCME workers.
Marion Murphy works in Department of Human Services in Chicago’s Woodlawn community. She has worked for the state of Illinois for 38 years and is a member of AFSCME Local 2808. During the March 8 celebration of International Women’s Day at the headquarters of the Chicago Teachers Union, she told attendees about the racist impact that Rauner’s attacks have on workers and communities:
As a Southside resident and a public-service worker who assists struggling families in getting Medicaid, food stamps and any other help that’s needed, I know from personal experience that Bruce Rauner’s refusal to settle a contract with our union, just like his refusal to develop a budget with our legislators, is disproportionately harming communities of color.
Of the AFSCME-represented state employees who live in Cook County, two-thirds are African American or Latino, two-thirds are women, more than half, like me, are women of color. By trying to slash standards of living, Governor Rauner weakens our ladder to the middle class. Public-service jobs have provided a path for millions of African Americans and Latinos to make a fair wage, buy a home, provide for our children and give back to our communities.
Murphy ended her impassioned statement by imploring audience members and allies to join AFSCME workers on Thursday, March 30, outside a Rauner fundraiser. The rally at the Chicago Hilton is to tell the governor, “Do Your Job.”
State workers and the communities they serve will need as much support as possible if they decide to walkout. This rally will be one step towards showing Rauner their seriousness and their support.