Rauner waged war on unions and lost


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — When Bruce Rauner exited stage left after delivering his final public remarks as governor, he had made two things abundantly clear: he couldn’t change the state, and it couldn’t change him.

“Change is hard. Change takes time,” Rauner said Tuesday afternoon as he bemoaned a list of accomplishments that was much shorter than he had hoped.

“The folks that created the massive problems in our state certainly are resistive to change,” he said in a nod to his arch nemesis Michael Madigan, the Democratic Speaker of the House. Rauner defiantly declared, “That does not mean that our recommendations or somehow wrong or flawed or incorrect at all.

After suffering a 15-point defeat in November, the one-term Republican maintained that his positions were popular in the state. 

“Virtually everything that we have recommended is supported by a majority of the people of Illinois,” he said.

His office did not respond to a request for examples of public opinion polls to reinforce that claim. If they exist, the election results bore out that he wasn’t nearly as popular a politician as the policy positions he championed.

The governor’s unwavering grip on the withering corpse of his now-infamous ‘turnaround agenda’ was cemented by a swarm of issue-specific polls conducted over several years. Meticulous scientific data regularly supplied him with talking points and campaign prods, though he never liked to admit his reliance on polls much in public.

However, in the only poll that matters, Rauner was on the ballot, and he was saddled with his own record. And no amount of sure-footed stances, electrifying speeches, heartfelt apologies, or vulgar campaign ads could blot out the stain of the historic two-year budget impasse.

“Over the last four years, all of us in the legislature have been involved in an epic struggle with the Executive Department,” Speaker Madigan said in rare remarks from the floor of the Illinois House Tuesday morning.

“What happened happened,” Madigan said. “No need to spend time today talking about blame or fault. What happened happened.”

In the eyes of many, including some prominent Illinois Republicans, what happened was that a multi-millionaire corporate executive with no government experience entered the executive branch of state government and promptly declared war on its employees and antagonized their next-of-kin, organized labor.

On his way out the door, Rauner hoisted the outcome of Janus vs. AFSCME, a U.S. Supreme Court case he initiated, as one of his top trophies in office. 

“I would rank that very, very high on our list of accomplishments,” he said. “Restoring free speech in organizations and governments — state and local — and in schools, and removing forced unionism, forced union dues collection, is a massive game changer. The changes won’t have implications in the first few months, but in the coming years, major change in the balance of power between taxpayers and groups inside government.”

Critics decried the well-funded, corporate-backed legal effort as an attack on the wages of working class public servants. While he acknowledges the effects of the Janus case may not take place for years to come, Rauner sees it as a significant step toward shackling the influence of public unions, and it’s a fight he says is far from over. 

With his last gasp of political breath, Rauner urged a “long-term transformation of state government” as he sees it, which consists of next-level public sector union busting.

“We cannot run departments effectively manage without real managers whose incentives and priorities are the taxpayers, not the union,” he said.

“I also think we should take it to another level,” Rauner said. “Certain things inside government should be removed from collective bargaining.”

“The conflicts of interest inherent in the government side are overwhelming,” he continued. “It’s the reason Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a strong union advocate was against government unions.”

Rauner deploys the historical example as a rhetorical device intended to paint current Illinois Democrats as farther left than the liberal American icon. However, history also provides examples of conservative figures who opposed the exact arguments Rauner makes about unions today.

For example, a 35-year-old Winston Churchill scolded monied interests who would pepper unions with “perpetual litigation” from the floor of the British Parliament in 1910. Churchill defended the right of unions to engage in political speech, and shot down the notion that mandatory union dues somehow obscured the right of individual members to engage in other forms of free speech or political expression. In effect, Churchill dismantled and dismissed the precise argument Rauner’s lawyers would use 108 years later to persuade the Supreme Court in the Janus case.

Early in Rauner’s term, Congressman Rodney Davis, a Republican from Taylorville, privately advised him to soften his combative posture against trade unions. The plea was unsuccessful.

In the twilight of Rauner’s term, lifelong Republican and Illinois Manufacturers’ Association boss Greg Baise said that “Rauner turning his back on the entire organized labor community hurt [Illinois Republicans]. There is no doubt about it.”

Trade unions say they felt the sting of the governor’s lone term in office. 

“He was governor of a state that not only has a lot of union members and union density, but polling shows that even people that aren’t in them are still pro-union,” said Bill Looby, a spokesman for the Illinois AFL-CIO.

Indeed, a Gallup poll conducted in August 2018 showed support for unions registered at 62 percent, the highest mark since 2003.

During his comments to reporters, Rauner claimed he actually supports trade unions, and only wished to squeeze government unions.

Neither the public nor private sector unions were convinced.

“His actions speak for themselves,” Looby said. “I can’t believe there is any evidence of him being pro-union,” he proclaimed, “other than just saying it.”

During the same remarks, Rauner repeated his calls for local right-to-work zones, a measure strongly opposed by trade unions.

“All I have said is, ‘hey guys, how about if we just pick a few high unemployment neighborhoods or a few counties and let them choose their regulation on that topic’ and see what happens,” Rauner said.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Nobody should be scared by that,” he argued.

“They’re certainly not doing it so working people can make more money and have better lives,” Looby responded.

Rauner pleaded with the incoming Pritzker administration to pursue legal action against what he called “illegal, basically forced unionization of managers in state government in Illinois.”

“We have some of the most unionized government departments in America,” Rauner complained. “We have many departments everywhere virtually everybody, including all the managers of the department, are unionized in the same union as the rank and file who work for them.”

On the campaign trail, Democrat J.B. Pritzker vowed to reverse Rauner’s policies and “put Illinois back on the side of working families.”

Looby said Rauner’s “overall war on workers” backfired because it mobilized unions in the private and public sector against “a common foe.”

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