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Is Illinois still a 'union-friendly' state?

Headlines coming out of Wisconsin and Indiana about the politics of organized labor are nothing new. Both states have Republican governors who’ve taken on union power - over wages, benefits and organizing rights.

And it’s easy to see how organized labor reacts when either Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels visit Illinois, as they did in recent weeks.

When Daniels visited Champaign, Ill., on April 19, he was greeted by union members protesting his push and support for right to work legislation in his state.

Meanwhile, when Walker visited Springfield earlier that week, union organizers chanted “Scott Walker go home” because of his efforts to take away bargaining rights for Wisconsin state employees.

But while Illinois is considered a union-friendly state, unions have been taking it to the chin lately, sometimes from the very Democrats who they helped get elected. Gov. Pat Quinn’s proposing cuts to state pensions and thousands of unionized state workers could lose their jobs at prisons and state mental health facilities. That’s leaving some to wonder whether the tight relationship between unions and Illinois is hurting.

Take this ad, for instance:  
“Governor Quinn’s new budget plan takes our state in the wrong direction. In all, the Quinn budget would wipe out 3,000 Illinois jobs. It’s time for our legislators to stand up for us. Say no to Pat Quinn’s plan.”

Illinois unions are running more and more radio ads like this which is odd because for years unions and top state Democrats were either on the same page, they settled their differences in the background or they united to fight anti-union policies.

Daniels and Walker were elected in part because of their stance on organized labor. It’s just the opposite for Illinois’ Democratic Governor Pat Quinn.

“Gov. Quinn doesn’t get elected without the labor movement. That’s no secret there. He absolutely needed them,” Bob Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana, said to WBEZ.

Bruno said the state’s fiscal crisis is bound up with rising Medicaid costs, costs for state pensions, and public jobs. It’s enough to cause some friction in the once happy marriage of unions and Illinois Dems.

“At the end of the day, it certainly does leave organized labor fighting with its friends just as it fights with its political enemies and that has certainly made labor relations in a state like Illinois much more hostile,” Bruno said.

So far, major Illinois unions are not calling for the ouster of the Democratic governor or other Democratic Illinois lawmakers that they’ve given thousands of campaign dollars to. But they are having to fight for their interests and against proposed budget cuts to public employee pensions.

“It was real disappointment. We’ve been consistent in the three measures of any pension solution and this falls short in all three of those,” said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 (AFSCME).

Lindall declined to answer WBEZ’s questions about whether there’s a growing rift between one of the state’s largest public unions and Quinn or other Democratic lawmakers. But Lindall did address the state pensions issue on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight program last week.

“What we need is for everyone to sit down and have substantive discussions in which public employees have an equal seat at the table and their voices heard through their union,” Lindall said.

Others say whether it’s in Republican-leaning Wisconsin, Indiana or Democratic-lead Illinois, unions are going to have a tough go at it.

“That’s a challenge that organized labor has to face everywhere whether that’s in the city of Chicago, State of Illinois or on the national level. There aren’t many politicians, they’re aren’t very many political parties whose sole interest is the interest of organized labor and working families,” said Jacob Lesniewski of Arise Chicago, a community and labor advocacy group.

Lesniewski said lawmakers from both parties have to deal with constituents beyond just organized labor. Business groups want lower taxes, and public school districts want more state money. And hospitals want to keep as much state money for Medicaid as possible. Unions are stuck in that mix, according to Lesniewski.

“The politics of austerity have either forced or caused a number of labor friendly politicians to have to make cuts on the backs of organized labor and organized labor constituency is in working families,” Lesniewski said.

But while unions here are taking hits, the University of Illinois’ Bob Bruno says any division between powerful state Democrats and organized labor can only get so wide. Just compare what’s happening in Illinois with other states.

“In some places, obviously in Wisconsin, Indiana being two glaring examples where the attack is frontal on collective bargaining, on the actual institution itself,” U of I’s Bob Bruno said. “In a state like Illinois, or a state like California, or a state like New York, the viability of the institution itself is not being challenged.”

Maybe not but the chants aren’t likely to die down against Quinn. So, he’s trying to smooth things out with unions. Here’s what he had to say on “The Ed Show” on MSNBC late last week.

“You have to honor the workers of our country, whether they work in the private sector or the private sector, they are the heart and soul of America and made in America are my favorite words,” Quinn said.

Quinn’s going to have to keeping saying the right words since he still has to negotiate a new contract with AFSCME and its 30,000 state employee members. AFSCME is also upset with Quinn’s decision to hold back promised raises in the current contract. The legislative session goes through the end of May. 

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