NPR Story
1:35 pm
Wed March 5, 2014

Candidates Disagree On Government Unions

Originally published on Wed March 5, 2014 8:27 am

Illinois' primary election is less than two weeks away. The four men seeking the Republican nomination for governor agree on a lot of topics. But there is an issue in which one of the candidates has distinguished himself: government-employee unions. Brian Mackey takes us inside the debate over whether government workers ought to be able to negotiate over their jobs.

Brian Mackey reports on the Republican gubernatorial candidates' attitudes toward government labor unions.

You don’t have to spend a lot of time listening to investor Bruce Rauner to know where he stands on public-sector unions. The disdain drips from a three word phrase he uses again and again and again:

MONTAGE: “The government union bosses … the government union bosses … of the government union bosses."

Beyond his ad nauseam ad slogan, Rauner has used even sharper words, like “corrupt” and “immoral.” It’s linguistic dressing on a more substantive argument about the influence of unions like AFSCME and SEIU.

“A government union boss can sit in a room with the governor and say, hey, give me free healthcare, give me a juicer pension, give our gang much higher pay than in the private sector for the same job, and in return, I’ll siphon back some of that money for your re-election, and I’ll give you a whole bunch of free — really taxpayer-funded — campaign workers," Rauner says.

Cinda Klickna, president of the Illinois Education Association, see it differently: “Our members want to be part of an organization that speaks up for students and for public education.”

The IEA represents more than 130,000 teachers and other school employees, mostly in the Chicago suburbs and Downstate. 

As Rauner tells it, Klickna is one of the handful of people most responsible for what’s wrong with Illinois government. A government union boss herself.

Klickna says unions — particularly her union — are often only in the news when they’re negotiating employment contracts. But she argues they have a much broader role to play in state government policy debates.

“To tell us that we cannot join to talk about those issues, I’m not sure that’s what parents want, either. I have calls from parents saying, ‘Oh, please work on lower class size, school safety, curriculum."

Klickna and other union leaders see a potential Rauner administration as a significant threat.

Because of that, the IEA is taking an active role in the Republican primary, endorsing state Sen. Kirk Dillard, from Hinsdale. It’s also given his campaign at least $250,000 dollars. That's on top of money it and other unions have used to fund anti-Rauner TV ads.

Dillard — and the other two men in the Republican race — have taken a much more conciliatory tone about unions.

"When Mr. Rauner's out there demonizing every public school teacher and everybody who's a member of organized labor, he needs to remember that many of these people actually are Republicans,” Dillard says.

Dillard points out that, no matter what a conservative politician or activist might dream about doing to unions in Illinois, there’s a major political hurdle.

"This is a state that has a long history of organized labor," he says. "We're not Indiana, we're not Wisconsin."

Dillard is talking about Wisconsin’s move to weaken government unions back in 2011. It’s resulted in plummeting membership.

Fellow GOP candidate Dan Rutherford, the state treasurer, explains why that would be much more difficult in Illinois: “The makeup of the general assemblies are dramatically different. I mean, we have supermajority Democrat control of the Illinois General Assembly.”

Wisconsin’s Republican governor was able to work with a Republican legislature, an opportunity unlikely to present itself to an Illinois governor.

The final Republican candidate — state Sen. Bill Brady, of Bloomington, also thinks Rauner’s making a big mistake by beating up on unions — but from a human resource management perspective.

“That’s not the way you build consensus and you motivate people to do what they need to be done," Brady says. "And that’s not what I would do.”

He says the incumbent governor — Democrat Pat Quinn — has also made mistakes in dealing with unions, misleading them on pensions and pay raises the state cannot afford.

“They want someone who’s going to be honest with them," Brady says. "Deal with them straight. They realize that we’re facing some difficult challenges. But respect them for what they’re doing for the state.”

Indeed, the unions are no great fans of Gov. Quinn. During prolonged contract negotiations a couple years ago, protestors followed him around the Illinois State Fair, booing at every stop. But depending on who wins the Republican nomination, unions could feel like they’re left with a choice between bad and worse.

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