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Unionbusting Your Way to National Prominence



Above: Illinois governor Bruce Rauner

There’s nothing good happening to the American worker in 2016, but it is even more discouraging than usual that Republican governors are trying to outdo each other in unionbusting as a way to gather national prominence and perhaps a presidential nomination. Scott Walker is of course the most prominent example of this, but it is also basically Illinois governor Bruce Rauner’s entire agenda.

Rauner’s efforts in Illinois are getting the closest scrutiny. That state is an unlikely launch pad for a crusade against union power. It has been a solidly blue state in presidential elections since 1992 and had not elected a Republican governor since 1998 until Rauner, a longtime friend of Rahm Emanuel, the Chicago mayor who had also worked in private equity, won office last year. Conservative journalist Stephen Moore called the political newcomer’s campaign “the biggest election of 2014.“ Illinois, he wrote in National Review, “could become a laboratory experiment about whether conservative ideas can work in a state that has been ruled by…unions and a self-serving political machine in Springfield and Chicago.”

Once in office, Rauner issued a “Turnaround Agenda” that begins with this premise: “Government union leaders are funding politicians who negotiate their pay and benefits.” To put an end to that, Rauner issued an executive order challenging collective bargaining agreements with state employees and urged municipalities and counties to create their right-to-work zones.

Rauner frames the issue as one of freedom and local control. The governor says he wants Illinois communities to decide whether “their businesses should be subject to forced unionism or employee choice.” Forced unionism is a familiar phrase among opponents of collective bargaining, but it’s also a misleading one. If a majority of workers vote to form a union, then it’s customary for workers to be compelled to pay dues as a price for being in a union. Those who don’t want to join the union are required to pay something so they aren’t getting a free ride. By giving workers the prerogative not to pay union dues, right-to-work laws undercut the power of unions.

Hoping to spur municipalities to take on public-employee unions, Rauner sent right-to-work resolutions to all of Illinois’s cities and villages. A municipality can just insert its name and vote on it. It’s a smart strategy since the Illinois statehouse is solidly Democratic and won’t pass a right-to-work law. Setting fires in small towns might arouse anti-union sentiment, and it will surely inflame the unions. Last week, unions packed a meeting of the Oswego County board in northern Illinois, where the nonbinding resolution was up for discussion. Scott Roscoe, president of the Fox Valley Building Trades Council in Aurora, told a local journalist, “If we don’t stop anti-worker schemes like right-to-work, more families will fall behind.”

I’d say it’s fairly likely that if Hillary Clinton wins in 2016 than Rauner is setting himself up nicely for the nomination in 2020. Certainly his friends the Koch Brothers are happy with him. “Right to Work a Person a Death” should just become the central agenda on the Republican agenda. And Rauner would probably even have good buddy Rahm Emanuel on his side!

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  • Steve LaBonne

    This is why the fecklessness of the Democratic Party apparatus in general, and especially of too many of the state party organizations (don’t even get me started about Ohio) is more than just an annoyance to liberals- it’s a danger to the future of the country.

    • Murc


      Scott Walker’s slash-and-burn in Wisconsin would be a lot less worrying (I did not say not worrying at all, I said less worrying)if we all took it as a given that the next time a Democrat was in the statehouse and we had legislative control, it would all be undone sometime in the first month.

      Only I don’t think anyone actually believes that is what will happen.

      • royko

        I think it’ll take generations to undo the anti-labor wildfire spreading through the Midwest.

        • Linnaeus

          I tend to agree. Among other things, the ratchet effect creates political inertia that requires especially favorable conditions to bring about a reversal of all that.

      • Fake Irishman

        Of, course, unified Democratic control in many of these states is something of a fantasy as well. The last time in happened in Michigan and Ohio was after the 1986 election. Indiana is similar. Wisconsin managed narrow majorities paired with a Democratic governor from 2006-2010, but between gerrymandering and natural strength both will prove difficult to overcome for Democrats in the medium term — even before we get to the fecklessness of Democratic state organizations.

    • ThrottleJockey

      In Illinois, at least, it runs well beyond fecklessness. Its outright corruption. The whole state is one big machine. Boss may have jumped the shark in its first episode but it wasn’t far off the mark.

  • Andrew

    If the unions can’t win in Chicago, then the unions can’t win anywhere. Might as well pack it up.

    • Do you have any alternative plan for helping the working class or are you just advocating surrender because that’s what you’d prefer?

      • Andrew


        • DrDick

          It does rather sound like that. Citizens United has totally changed the playing field in ways that seriously hamper unions or any other populist group.

          • Andrew

            I’m just surprised he took my joke as some symbol of surrender.

            • Brett

              It’s the internet. It can be hard to tell if it’s sarcasm sometimes.

              Especially since there is a grain of truth to it. The Midwest has really turned sour on labor policy and issues in recent years, although I think Illinois’ Democratic majority will endure for the time being.

    • DrDick

      The already lost, Rahm was re-elected.

    • Tony Hurst

      People in Chicago are sick paying high taxes so that Daley’s cronies can line their pockets.

      • DrDick

        Then why the fuck did they elect Rahm twice?

        • Tony Hurst

          To destroy the unions that daley has been paying off for 60 years.

          • DrDick

            WTF are you even talking about? Or do you even have a clue?

            • DrDick

              Also, the Daley you are referring to died almost half a century ago. Little Richie is a shill for the developers.

  • Nobdy

    We, as a country, seem to have just decided to let organized labor slip into the past and disappear. It’s rather perplexing, considering how many people need good jobs and how obvious it is that unions are one of the best ways to create good jobs without magically turning everyone in the country into a software engineer. You’d think that a populist union message would be a powerful one for all the dispossessed folks struggling to get by, or those who are struggling but aren’t really getting by, but just like with healthcare the Republicans have managed to make people believe that the thing that could help them is the enemy. It’s like children being afraid of vaccinations (Or, I guess, very stupid adults being afraid of vaccinations).

    People say it’s racism and the terror that somewhere out there is a black man who is getting a pension he didn’t work THAT hard for, but it has to be something else. With unions I’d guess it’s fear that increased labor costs will bring up prices and if you’re working at Wal*Mart you won’t be able to afford anything, but if Wal*Mart had a union, of course, you would. The courts also seem loathe to enforce any labor law in states where there is some left to enforce.

    • Murc

      People say it’s racism and the terror that somewhere out there is a black man who is getting a pension he didn’t work THAT hard for, but it has to be something else.

      … they do?

      What I usually see as the explanation is a combination of “spite” (see: the Russian parable about the farmer who, when granted a wish, wishes for his neighbors cow to die) and years of lies convincing people that the only reason unions exist is to allow people to work 20 hours weeks while drunk and/or high on the job and never get fired no matter how incompetent they are.

      Spite is just part of human nature, and the latter is a naked appeal to the puritan impulses baked into a lot of American culture.

      • MAJeff

        Spite is just part of human nature, and the latter is a naked appeal to the puritan impulses baked into a lot of American culture.

        I think there’s a lot to this. The particular American form of the Puritanical ideology of work for the sake of work combined with wealth as a state of grace is fucked up to begin with. But, when you combine it with basic human assholery…Americans, as a people, really do tend to be assholes.

        • royko

          Yeah, too often when a non-union worker hears about a nice benefit that a union worker has, they don’t think, “I should get that, too. Maybe I need a union.” They think, “How dare they get that!”

          • ThrottleJockey

            One of the more interesting conversations I had this week was with the guy who was complaining about trifling Section 8 tenants too lazy to work bringing down the neighborhood. Meanwhile he’s living with his mother, is only working the part time job I got for him, refuses to apply for any more substantial employment (because its not good enough for him), and lets me buy him clothes and drive him hither and yon.

            He tells me, “But, TJ, some people aren’t even trying like I am.” I’m like, “Nigga please, the only days you try are the days I forcibly pull you from bed.”

          • Davis X. Machina

            Yet there are plenty of people who still wonder why we don’t have a functional Scandinavian-style social democracy yet, even though we elected Obama almost seven whole years ago…

            Hope and Change in a Divide and Conquer world… good luck with that.

      • DocAmazing

        The classic work on spite:


    • Phil Perspective

      Unions also helped do this to themselves. Look at the unions that endorsed Cuomo and Emanuel. Look at the unions, that for a long time now, thought it was good practice to play footsie with the owners/power brokers. Or the ones that never want to hold the Democratic Party accountable. Where has that gotten them?

      • efgoldman

        Unions also helped do this to themselves. Look at the unions that endorsed Cuomo and Emanuel

        Oh, it started way before that, when the public safety unions, pissed at Democrats for trying to integrate police forces and fire departments, endorsed Reagan and Bush1 (and GOBP gubernatorial candidates) instead of Democrats.
        This even after Saint Ronnie screwed the Air Traffic Controllers.
        Voting against your own economic interests isn’t new.

    • erick

      its a big misdirection game.

      The Middle class has lost most of its benefits in the private sector, defined benefit pensions replaced with 401Ks, the amount of health care that they pay for and so on and so on.

      So that people won’t notice that all the productivity gains in the economy for the last 30-40 years have gone to the owners of capital rather than the workers the Reps are doing their coroporate masters bidding and saying “look at those parasite public union employees with their pensions and vacation and free health care, you don’t get that, they’re ripping you off” Then instead of asking why the middle class in the private sector doesn’t get those benefits anymore people vote to take them away from the public sector.

      They think the changes in benefits and so on just happened, like some act of nature, just the way things are, rather than deliberate decicions made by the private sector and changes in government policy. The rise of the middle class in the middle of the 20th cnetury didn’t just happen in vacuum, it took deliberate action by government to make it happen, and it is going away for the same reasons.

      Working in high tech I interact with a lot of engineers who have libertarian leanings. It is amazing how people can be so smart in some areas and so clueless in others. Our pensions went away 15 years ago replaced by only 401Ks. On the company chat rooms engineers would toe the party line and talk about how much better it was becasue now they controlled how their money was invested. I replied “how naive are you guys, did you see the Press Release where they touted the billions of dollars the company was saving due to this move? Where do you think those billions are coming from? I got news for you the fees that used to manage the pensions are a drop in that bucket, it isn’t coming out of the CEOs pay package, it is from us, we used to get a guranteed pension, now they match (up to only 4% of our pay) what we save in our 401k, big whoop”

    • Linnaeus

      You’d think that a populist union message would be a powerful one for all the dispossessed folks struggling to get by, or those who are struggling but aren’t really getting by

      You would think that, but creating the solidarity that makes unionizing possible, and creating a political context in which collective actions like unionizing are deemed favorable, runs up against some powerful headwinds that come from long standing values in American culture. One is a particular notion of individualism that is deeply suspicious of any kind of collective action (except on an ad hoc basis) because it takes away the individual’s prerogative to either thrive or fail and harms those who have made the “right” choices Right wing populism draws on this idea, effectively reframing the average person as one who is a responsible person brought down by carrying those who aren’t (“makers and takers” rhetoric brings this message into particularly sharp relief).

      Another headwind is religion, which is not at all to say that religious people and organizations are necessarily aligned against a progressive political culture (certainly there are examples where this was quite the opposite), but religious people often have to reconcile conflicts between some of their religious beliefs and the political acts they take to advance things like labor organizing and collective bargaining. Then you add to that the reemergence of right wing evangelicals as a political force.

      Then there’s the headwind of race, which you can’t get around for reasons that I think are pretty obvious to everyone here.

      All of these factors (but by no means the only ones) contributed to the fracturing of the New Deal political culture and make it difficult to rebuild a contemporary version of that.

  • TapirBoy1

    Only one quibble, EL: isn’t Rauner pro-choice and not totally pro-gun, thus precluding him from the nomination? I’m not an Illinoisan, thus not sure, but I think Rauner had to tack too far to the cultural left to be a plausible national candidate. All that said, screw him.

    ETA: this piece seems instructive on Rauner’s social views, which are none/will say anything to get elected: http://www.chicagomag.com/Chicago-Magazine/Felsenthal-Files/November-2014/Is-Bruce-Rauner-Pro-Choice-Anti-Choice-or-Just-an-Opportunist/

  • EliHawk

    Counterpoint: Isn’t the big reason he narrowly won was that he wasn’t Pat Quinn? Surely he’s likely to be a one term governor–Illinois isn’t Wisconsin, even in midterms.

    • Phil Perspective

      Yes. But why did pat Quinn think it would be a good idea to be Pat Quinn? Kicking your voters in the teeth is never a good strategy. It would be like if Scott Walker passed a bill making abortion more available in Wisconsin.

      • ThrottleJockey

        Its like Denzel says in The Equalizer about the Old Man and the Sea: “The Old Man has to be the Old Man and the Fish has to be the Fish.” Pat Quinn had to be Pat Quinn. No way he was going to doff his white hat and cape to get re-elected. The guy never has a political tin ear and the charisma of a CPA. He was pretty much what I expected, for better or for worse. He’s better than anyone else in the state, but that ain’t saying much.

        Edit: What bills are you talking about? Pension reform?

    • Murc

      That’s what we here in New York thought about George Pataki.

      Then he stuck around for twelve years, because we had the brilliance to nominate such luminaries as H. Carl McCall to run against him.

      • EliHawk

        If Illinois hadn’t elected luminaries like Blago (Twice!) and Quinn, I’d be more inclined to believe that could happen.

    • Halloween Jack

      Pretty much, yeah. My joke has been that, once people downstate see proof that Rauner has no real solution for fixing the state, they’ll ask who elected that Chicago asshole governor (ignoring that the only county that didn’t vote for Rauner was Cook). He’s already made the beautiful move of hiring his friends and giving them fat paychecks, ignoring that one of the things that brought Quinn down was stuffing the Department of Transportation with political appointments.

  • so-in-so

    One quibble, the picture shows the gov’s financial backers, not him. He’s just hired help.

  • Bruce Vail

    I’m curious about something else:

    Since when does Newsweek run articles with a pro-union spin?

    My grandma liked the old Newsweek, where nothing remotely positive was ever said about unions.

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