chicago—Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner has declared war on workers and their unions—and, by extension, on fair wages and the prospects for economic advancement in his state. The newly elected executive is proposing “right-to-work” (for less) experiments that would undermine private-sector unions while he bullies state officials to help him weaken public-sector unions.
This is the new normal for Republican governors in much of the Midwest. In addition to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s ongoing assaults on collective bargaining rights, Republican governors in Michigan and Indiana have pushed through right-to-work schemes that are designed to make it harder for unions to organize, build strength and bargain on behalf of family-supporting wages. Ohio Governor John Kasich and his legislative tried to implement a Walker-style assault on public-sector unions in his state, but the voters rejected his proposal in a referendum made possible by a provision that allows that state’s citizens to overturn unpopular and unnecessary legislation.
Rauner makes no secret of the fact that he would like to be the Scott Walker of Illinois.
Rauner critics such as Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis refer to the newly elected governor as “Walker on steroids,” while veteran Chicago political consultant and commentator Don Rose has described the Illinois Republican as “horrifically and historically anti-union.” Rauner gave rise to those assessments during a free-spending 2014 gubernatorial campaign in which he floated (and then abandoned) the idea of reducing or even eliminating the minimum wage, blamed public-sector unions and their members for the state’s fiscal woes and hailed Walker—who is now preparing a labor-bashing bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nod—as a role model.
But what if Rauner isn’t a Walker? What if Rauner’s a Kasich?
What if the Illinoisan gets tripped up by the voters—or, to be more precise, by the fear even among his fellow Republicans that voters do not approve of union bashing?
When Rauner issued an executive order blocking the collection of “fair share” dues by public employees who are represented by unions but do not choose to formally join them, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 executive director Roberta Lynch ripped the order as “a paper-thin excuse that can’t hide his real agenda: silencing working people and their unions who stand up for the middle class.”
Lynch also ripped Rauner’s move as “a blatantly illegal abuse of power,” while Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery described it as “an abuse of power and the democratic process.”
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan agreed, determining that the dues need to be collected, “As the law stands now, ‘fair share’ dues are constitutional,” her office announced. “The comptroller needs to follow the law.”
The comptroller is responsible for maintaining the financial accounts of the state of Illinois, and for ordering payments from them. Like the attorney general, the comptroller is elected statewide.
What distinguishes Attorney General Madigan from Comptroller Leslie Munger is that Madigan is a Democrat, while Munger is a Republican. Yet, though she was appointed by the governor last month to fill a vacancy, Munger has sided with Madigan in the dues dispute—announcing that she will “defer to the guidance” of the attorney general.
Despite bipartisan recognition that Rauner is wrong, the governor is still pressing state agencies to violate the law. Why? His strategy is largely a legal one; the governor wants to force this matter into the courts, in hopes of securing another anti-labor ruling from the activist majority on the US Supreme Court.
In the meantime, however, Rauner’s got a political problem, since his own Republican appointee is refusing to go along with his scheme.
Why is the comptroller defiant? It may go beyond respect for the law. Munger must face the voters in a special election that is scheduled to coincide with the November 2016, presidential election.
Munger would fare poorly running as an advocate for the anti-labor policies of Scott Walker and Bruce Rauner in a high-turnout election. So following the law, and respecting unions, may be the better part of political valor. It is also a part of the Republican tradition in Illinois and nationally. Republican candidates have historically competed with Democrats for union support and votes in Illinois. Indeed, the comptroller Munger succeeded, the late Judy Baar Topinka, was an old-school Illinois Republican who was hailed as “a champion for unions and for working people.”
Republicans who side with unions are rare these days. But Illinoisans in particular have reason to expect more of the Grand Old Party than Rauner’s anti-labor obsession. After all, it was an Illinois Republican who said, “Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
His name was Abraham Lincoln.