By: Monique Garcia
As Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner sets his sights on limiting the influence of unions in Illinois, he’s pushing an idea he’s dubbed “empowerment zones” — areas across the state where voters could decide if workers in their communities should be forced to join a union or pay associated dues.
It’s a variation of what is more commonly called “right to work” — rules put in place at a statewide level to prevent unions from requiring workers who decline membership to pay related fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining they still benefit from. The concept, which generally applies to private-sector unions, has gained traction among conservative politicians across the nation as states try to spur economic growth following a brutal recession that saw businesses close and tax dollars dry up.
The like-minded new governor is unlikely to get a statewide ban on forced union membership from a General Assembly firmly controlled by Democrats, who historically have relied on employee unions for support come campaign season. Empowerment zones represent a trial program on the local level.
“I’m not trying to force the whole state to go right to work, I’m not advocating that,” Rauner said Friday at a stop in Decatur. “I want local voters, I want you to be empowered to decide this issue for yourselves, in your cities and in your county. I want that everywhere in the state. And the counties that liked the status quo and liked closed shop, keep it. Terrific. Those who want to compete and recruit more manufacturing firms and transportation companies, terrific.”
Rauner views right-to-work laws as a way to make Illinois more attractive to businesses that weigh operating costs here with other states. If companies come, Rauner argues, so do jobs and the associated tax dollars to help support government. To opponents, the policy is purely an attempt to weaken unions and drive down wages. They contend such measures cause more harm than good, as workers make less money and are forced to then rely on government assistance programs.
Taken with other ideas Rauner unveiled during his State of the State speech Wednesday, empowerment zones are being seen by some as just one piece of an all-out assault on unions and Illinois Democrats. Rauner also called for a ban on political donations by unions, giving taxpayers a say in the collective bargaining process at the local level, and ending the requirement that prevailing union wages be paid to workers on state and municipal construction projects.
“I’d think if I was a public-sector worker that Governor Rauner has declared war on us,” said Tom Balanoff, president of the Service Employees International Union Illinois State Council, which represents workers who provide home health care, janitorial and maintenance services.
Rauner rejects that notion, saying he’s not “anti-union” but merely endorsing the “freedom to choose,” and that being allowed to leave a union but still having to pay dues isn’t much of a choice.
“You want to join a union? Terrific. God bless you,” Rauner said Thursday in Troy, near St. Louis. “Here’s the issue. Today in Illinois, we are closed. If there’s a union, you have join it, in government or in business. You know what? Other states don’t enforce that. And companies that want to have the flexibility to have union or not to have their employees be able to sign, they don’t come to places that enforce it.”
Rules regarding union enrollment are more nuanced than the governor lets on. Federal labor law, which applies to private-sector unions, does not require membership in a union as a condition of employment. However, because unions are legally bound to negotiate on behalf of all employees covered in the bargaining unit they represent, workers who choose not to join are still required to pay dues, or what is known as an “agency fee.” The idea is that everyone who benefits from the collective bargaining, such as through higher wages and better retirement benefits negotiated by the union, should pay their fair share of associated costs.
There are similar rules for public employee unions in Illinois. Workers can choose to join a union, but those who do not are responsible for paying a “fair share” fee. Illinois law prohibits those fees from being used to support political candidates.
The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics Statics says there 831,000 union members in Illinois as of last year, representing about 15 percent of the state’s workforce. An additional 49,000 workers were identified as having no union affiliation, but their jobs were covered by a union. It’s that population of workers who likely pay agency fees to offset collective bargaining costs but choose to reject union membership.
Rauner said, “the fair share is huge, it’s almost 100 percent or 80 percent. That’s not right.”
Those fees are at the center of the national right-to-work debate. In states that have put in place right-to-work laws, workers are no longer required to pay fees or dues to support collective bargaining efforts.
That sets up a system critics call a “free ride,” in which workers who don’t pay into the system benefit at the expense of those who do. If enough workers take the free ride, unions don’t have the financial resources to negotiate as fiercely, and their powers are weakened. Unions argue that leads to fewer rights for workers at the benefit of employers.
“You create a race to the bottom in terms of wages,” said Bill Looby, political director of the Illinois AFL-CIO. “It’s an ideology that the economy will do better if the top does better. But that’s a tired theory that hasn’t worked. If we are going to stimulate our prosperity it needs to come from the middle class.”
The impact on worker incomes and economic growth depends on the ideology of the think tank doing the study. A 2013 study by the University of Illinois declared job creation is likely somewhere in the middle, estimating right to work laws could range from a 1.2-percentage-point decrease in total employment to a 1.4-percentage-point increase in Illinois.
Two dozen states have passed right-to-work laws mostly in the South. In the Midwest, neighboring Indiana, Iowa and Michigan have such laws, and in Michigan restrictions extend to some public employee unions.
While Rauner has yet to fill in the details about his plan, the broad strokes of his proposal would allow voters in a county, municipality or other local unit of government to put a referendum on the ballot to decide “whether or not business employees should be forced to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment.”
Attempting to put in place right-to-work laws at the local level instead of statewide also raises legal questions. Critics say it’s a violation of the Taft-Hartley Act, an update to federal employment law passed in 1947 that gave states the power to enact right-to-work laws in the first place. They point to a provision that says such restrictions can be put in place by “state or territorial law,” arguing those words forbid right-to-work measures at a county or municipal level.
“The federal law, if you read it, it’s really not ambiguous, it says territory or state, and it’s clear from the congressional record what people meant — a state like Illinois or Michigan, not a segment like Cook County,” said Bob Bruno, a labor and employment relations professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “It’s not at all clear where this is consistent with federal law, if this idea would be legal.”
Bruno said the legal ambiguity is fueled in part because only Kentucky has enacted right-to-work laws at a local level, where a handful of counties have approved such measures in recent months after a statewide effort was blocked by Democrats in the legislature.
Those moves have sparked a court challenge from unions, as well as an opinion from Democratic Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, who also is running for governor. Conway found that “local governments have no power to enact right-to-work ordinances, as they are pre-empted by (federal law).” But proponents fought back with their own analysis from two former Kentucky Supreme Court justices — one Democrat, one Republican — saying a county does have that power, a signal that the court battle is far from over.
A Rauner aide said the governor thinks he could avoid a similar legal fight in Illinois under legislation being drafted that would “explicitly allow local voters to create empowerment zones.”
“Because there would be enabling legislation, we believe there would not be a similar legal challenge as is being pursued in Kentucky,” spokesman Lance Trover said.
Speculation about legal challenges in Illinois may be premature, though, as even supporters of Rauner’s plan acknowledge it may not survive the inevitable political battles ahead. Still, they say it’s a needed start to discussions about how to improve the state’s business climate as companies move out of state in search of a cheaper workforce.
“There’s no doubt that my friends, the leaders in organized labor, will make this a defining issue in their interactions with members of the General Assembly,” said Greg Baise, president and CEO of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association. “But I would ask my friends in organized labor what’s going so well in the current circumstances that we should protect so strongly? There’s a higher wage base, but if we year after year lose these facilities, why shouldn’t we look at these opportunities? Why shouldn’t we have this as an arrow in our quiver when we are talking to a company that wants to relocate in Illinois?”
House Speaker Michael Madigan, who chairs the state Democratic Party, offered a veiled hint of the difficult prospects ahead for Rauner’s idea last week, saying his focus is on “helping working people.”
“I think what we ought to do is to understand that organized labor represents working people. For myself, I’m very interested in helping working people. And I’m sure that almost every member of the legislature shares that view,” Madigan told Illinois Public Media. “Organized labor doesn’t represent everybody, but they do advance significant ideas before the legislature as to how we can improve the economy, help people get jobs, keep jobs, pay taxes, make a mortgage payment, pay for the education of a child.”
Tribune reporters Kim Geiger and Ray Long contributed.