There’s one theme that’s come up day after day at the Illinois delegation’s morning events this week in Philadelphia: Gov. Bruce Rauner’s stance on unions.
Rauner has advocated for a number of policies in the legislature, in court, and in contract negotiations that labor unions see as a threat to their very existence.
This week, Illinois Democrats have heard about that fight over and over.
According to the agenda handed out by the state Democratic Party, 20 union leaders have addressed the Illinois delegation during breakfasts this week. Here’s what a few of them had to say:
“Does Gov. Rauner sound familiar to you? Does he sound like Donald Trump to you?”
-Jorge Ramirez, President of the Chicago Federation of Labor
“We fell asleep at the switch and elected a rich, disconnected bastard for governor of this state.”
-Eric Dean, The International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental and Reinforcing Iron Workers Union
“I don’t know what else I can say about your governor. Excuse my French, I think I saw all the kids (leave), I think your governor’s a jackass to tell you the truth.”
-Terry O’Sullivan, Laborers’ International Union of North America
“We’re gonna open up one gigantic can of whoop ass on Donald Trump and every Republican in this country.”
-J. David Cox, American Federation of Government Employees
The overarching point is that unions hate Rauner’s policies - and what Rauner is advocating for has drawn the eye of national unions in Washington, D.C.
“The state of Illinois for our members is Ground Zero,” said Lee Saunders, who leads the union AFSCME at the federal level. “Make no mistake about it: When we engage in battle, AFSCME engages in battle. We aren’t letting anyone stomp on the rights of our members across the state of Illinois.”
AFSCME Local Council 31, which represents about 36,000 Illinois state government workers, is in middle of a big contract fight with Rauner. Negotiations have stalled for several months as Rauner sought to declare an impasse. Rauner has said the union’s demands are unaffordable and the union has said Rauner wants to destroy workers’ rights.
Illinois state workers who are AFSCME members have been told to prepare for a strike.
“If Council 31 goes on strike, I want to make this real clear: An attack on them is an attack on our national union and we’re gonna fight like hell to protect our members,” Saunders said to the Illinois Democratic delegation.
Ed Smith of the Union Labor Life Insurance Company spelled out how unions’ policy positions align with the Democratic Party’s.
“Hey, it’s so easy. Why are they coming after unions? It’s a twofer,” Smith said. “When you get unions, you get the Democrat Party.”
Many union members work as precinct workers for the Democratic Party, make phone calls for Democrats, knock on doors for Democrats and contribute money to Democratic candidates.
Several unions paid for a delegate breakfast buffet in Philadelphia this week.
In return, those Democrats have responded by treating some union leaders as celebrities. For instance, outside one of the breakfasts this week, Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), couldn’t walk down the hall without state lawmakers posing for pictures with her.
“We now see Illinois as a state where we need to nationally help make sure that this ‘16 election is used as a stepping stone to make sure we that get Rauner out of office in ‘18,” Henry said.
Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly responded to this week’s rhetoric with a written statement.
“These comments demonstrate the lack of judgment and reasonableness of the leaders who are marching our state workers toward a September 1 strike. National union leaders could care less about Illinois’s state employees or our worst-in-the-nation economic situation. These national union leaders want to stir up unrest in Illinois so they can use our workers to fundraise for their national organizations. Apparently local labor leaders are willing to let their own members be used in that way and that is wrong.”
Meanwhile, Rauner’s top opponent, Michael Madigan, who is both the Illinois state House Speaker and the state’s Democratic Party chairman, has been praised up and down this week by union leaders for standing up to Rauner - especially the union leaders who work more in Washington, D.C. than Springfield, Illinois.
“The extremism of Governor Rauner is known all across America. He’s easily identified with the extreme Right in the Republican Party and the extreme Right in the nation,” Madigan told reporters when asked about Rauner’s national reputation.
After this week in Philadelphia, as both Rauner and Madigan get encouragement and praise from people in their ideological corners, the state’s conflict between business interests and unions seems to be moving toward the governor’s race in 2018 and not a compromise. And It’s sucking in things like passing a complete state budget into its orbit.
Tony Arnold reports on Illinois state politics. Follow him at @tonyjarnold.