October 2015

Battlefield Illinois

This is the first in a series about right to work battles that ironworkers are facing across the country.

Illinois might be the last place you would expect to see right to work. The state has high union density, a strong union presence in politics, and a longstanding democratic majority. Unfortunately, right to work is a real threat in Illinois, and we need to take action to stop it.

The problem began with the last election. Incumbent Governor Pat Quinn was one of the least popular governors in the country. Republican millionaire Bruce Rauner took advantage of this, funding a successful bid to knock Quinn out of office. A Republican governor doesn’t necessarily mean right to work is on the agenda, of course. Plenty of Republican governors have served in states, including Illinois, by being willing to work with labor. Rauner, unfortunately, has made attacking union workers his mission as governor.

Rauner came out of the gate early with his anti-union agenda. He ended the state’s longstanding policy of negotiating project labor agreements (PLAs) on highway projects. He tried to take away public sector union workers’ collective bargaining rights, and when that failed, started seizing their dues. Worst of all, he proposed so-called “opportunity zones” across the state in which right to work would be in effect.

Right to work is bad enough on the state level. It would be worse if it went county to county. Businesses would have to operate by one set of rules in one location, and another a few miles away. Collective bargaining agreements would become more complicated, and subject to change on short notice. Right to work zones would throw union businesses into chaos.

The Illinois state legislature wants nothing to do with Rauner’s plan. Large pro-union majorities rejected the governor’s proposals in both chambers. Legislatively, at least, the Illinois state government is still on the side of working people. Likewise, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has thrown up roadblocks to foil the governor’s agenda wherever possible.

Rauner hasn’t let this opposition slow him down. He has enacted as much of his agenda as possible using executive actions, daring the courts to strike them down. Labor has fought back legally, but the process is slow and expensive. Unfortunately, many parts of Rauner’s plan, such as his attack on PLAs, are entirely within his power as governor. We won’t be able to reverse them until we get him out of office.

The governor has also flexed his hefty financial muscle to push his policies. He is independently very wealthy, and has offered his millions in support of any state legislators who come over to his camp. The threat of him using his money in the primaries has put a great deal of pressure on pro-labor Republicans. Rauner is also focusing his money on knocking out pro-labor incumbents during the general election and replacing them with flunkies.

Will Bruce Rauner succeed at single handedly making Illinois an anti-union state? The answer is in our hands. The governor is using every available resource to achieve his goals, and we need to meet him head on with everything we’ve got. Union members sitting out the last election is what got Rauner into office in the first place, and sitting out the next one will allow him to get his allies into office.

First off, make sure you are registered to vote. Even if you think you are, it doesn’t hurt to check with you local board of elections to make sure your information is in order. The local union can help you get registered. Don’t be discouraged if you have a criminal record that you think stops you from voting; you can get your rights restored. 

Once you are registered, get informed about which candidates are on Rauner’s side and which ones are on yours. Contact your local or central labor council, or reach out to state legislators’ offices directly. Talk to your friends and family to make sure they are informed too. Finally, don’t forget to go to the polls on Election Day! Make a plan for how and when you and your family vote, and check in with them to make sure you all follow through.

Illinois is the birthplace of the American labor movement, and the birthplace of our union. The workers of Illinois have come under attack many times throughout our history, and every time we have survived. If we stay united and get active, Governor Rauner and his right to work plan don’t stand a chance.