Seth Perlman / AP

Illinois governor takes a local approach to right-to-work

Unlikely to win backing for a statewide law to curb unions, Bruce Rauner urges counties to introduce their own proposals

CHICAGO — Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed an executive order earlier this month that effectively created a right-to-work system for government employees in the state. But the move — which bars public-sector unions from automatically collecting fees from nonunion workers — is just the latest and boldest step in what union leaders say is a mounting assault on Illinois’ labor movement.

Since taking office in January, Rauner, a Republican who made millions managing public pensions for private equity firms, has been zigzagging the state, touting the idea of “employment opportunity zones.” The proposal, which resembles an idea first advanced by the conservative Heritage Foundation and other nonprofit groups, would give cities and counties the authority to choose if workers in their communities can opt out of paying dues even if they work for unionized shops. While Rauner has not provided specifics, it’s likely the zones could apply to all workers, not just government employees.

Unions say the fees eliminate the free-rider problem of workers benefiting from collective bargaining without helping cover the costs. But Rauner and other defenders of right-to-work argue that the fees are unconstitutional and that eliminating them will boost economic growth. The battle over the constitutionality of Rauner’s executive order has taken over Springfield, the capital. There, his appointee for comptroller, Leslie Munger, is refusing to enforce the edict.

In his bid to unseat Democrat Pat Quinn in this deep blue state, Rauner and his campaign focused less on right-to-work than a pledge to overhaul the state’s public pension system.

“You never heard right-to-work when he was running for governor,” Jeremy Creasy, a union carpenter from Peoria, wrote in an email. Some of his colleagues, who rarely vote for Republicans, supported Rauner primarily out of frustration with the Democratic-led legislature’s failure to alleviate the state’s fiscal challenges. “In doing so, they forgot about the one for-sure Republican agenda that may affect them the most — right-to-work.”

Rauner’s office did not respond to requests for comment on whether the zones would apply both to public and private-sector workers like Creasy. The governor has said the zones could be determined via voter referendums.

“There is a lot of enthusiasm” for the zones, the governor said during an interview after a Feb. 6 address in Peoria to members of area chambers of commerce and local politicians. “I think there’ll be a lot of interest in getting these things done.”

Little support

Rauner’s executive order is rooted in his assertion that requiring government workers to pay union fees is a violation of the First Amendment. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has sided with Munger and declared the order unconstitutional. In anticipation of this, Rauner filed a federal lawsuit the same week as his executive order asking for a ruling on the fees’ constitutionality. A decision on the case, before the U.S. District Court in northern Illinois, would override Madigan’s position.

Illinois is not the first state to deal with this question. In California a lawsuit aimed at the state’s teachers’ association is expected to reach the Supreme Court, and depending on the outcome, the country’s entire public sector could fall under right-to-work. Rauner, meanwhile, has also sought to ban political contributions from labor organizations.

The governor has said publicly that he will not try to turn Illinois into a right-to-work state. Any statewide legislation to do so would be virtually dead on arrival at the Democratic-controlled legislature. The zones, he has said, are a way to ensure that parts of Illinois can still benefit from what he describes as the economic benefits of right-to-work enjoyed by other states. 

If private sector union workers want a glimpse of how the zones might work, they have only to look at neighboring Kentucky. The state has been the focus of an effort by groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Heritage Foundation and a new organization called Protect My Check to encourage local governments to introduce right-to-work legislation. Since December of last year, five counties there have passed right-to-work laws, even as statewide legislation has stalled. In Maine legislation that would have created right-to-work zones in certain areas of the state failed last year.

Illinois is one of 24 states that have not adopted right-to-work laws. And it appears unlikely, so far at least, that many local officials will embrace Rauner’s push for employment opportunity zones.

“To my knowledge, there are no discussions going on about this in our community,” says Lara Weis, president of the Champaign County Chamber of Commerce.

Ann Thompson-Kelly, an alderwoman in Rockford, said she was “in support of” discussing the zones. But she added that she had no plans to bring a right-to-work proposal to City Council meetings. Local officials in other cities and counties, including Ryan Spain of the Peoria City Council and Jim Webster and Dave Kelley of the Winnebago County Board, said they weren’t aware of any plans to address the subject.

Kelley said he “personally liked the idea” of the employment opportunity zones, also known as right-to-work zones, but said they had little chance of becoming a reality. “It's wishful thinking at this point,” he wrote in an email.

Rauner began talking publicly about pushing city- and county-designated right-to-work zones at a Jan. 27 event in Decatur. A few days later he traveled to Champaign. There hundreds of people gathered to protest him and his proposal. Among them was Dan Gilbert, a professor at the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.

“Folks felt like the governor was laying out a vision for the future of the state that didn’t include them, that framed them as being barriers to the future of the state’s success, as the problem,” he said. “They see themselves as part of the solution.”

The governor has argued that the zones will help lure back businesses that have relocated to right-to-work states and that the rising tax revenue will help plug Illinois’ approximately $9 billion budget deficit. But a study conducted by Gilbert’s colleagues at the university found that right-to-work laws not only weaken union bargaining power but also negatively affect wages, thus reducing tax revenue. And any spikes in employment as a result of right-to-work are temporary, according to the study.

“A lot of folks see these policy proposals as real attacks on the labor movement, on working people, on a model of shared power in the workplace that has enabled communities like mine to sustain a middle class,” Gilbert said.

High anxiety

Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman was a member of Rauner’s transition team. He has criticized the state’s business climate.
Andrew Burton / Getty Images

Caterpillar, a manufacturer of heavy equipment based in Peoria, has for years been moving jobs out of Illinois, both to right-to-work states and other countries. On Friday the company announced that it would keep its global headquarters in the city, a decision that Rauner called “a great day for Illinois.” CEO Doug Oberhelman, a member of Rauner’s postelection transition team, criticized the Illinois business climate in a 2011 letter to then-Gov. Quinn.

“I’ve included just three of several letters I have received from governors across the country,” Oberhelman wrote at the time. “They are welcoming Caterpillar to their state with open arms, and they make compelling arguments. I have been called, ‘cornered’ in meetings and ‘wined and dined’ — the heat is on.”

But the company’s facility in Joliet — which once employed some 7,000 workers — is just the latest that is now in danger of closing, according to a statement released by Caterpillar in mid-January.

There, past a security guard inside the massive complex that now employs 230 union machinists, a map of the world displays Caterpillar’s global footprint. Continents are painted in the company’s signature yellow, and factories and facilities are labeled with the names of the towns they’re in. That includes Joliet, for now. But in the future, according to Warren Dorris, a former manager at the plant, those jobs may end up in Monterrey, Mexico. Dorris helped move jobs from Joliet to Monterrey when he was still employed at Caterpillar.

“I’m not surprised,” he told the Joliet Herald-News of Caterpillar’s impending decision on the fate of the factory. “But it’s a sad day for Joliet.”

Oberhelman has not spoken publicly about the governor’s proposed right-to-work zones, and Caterpillar representatives Jim Dugan and Barbara Cox did not respond to requests for comment. The company employs thousands of unionized workers in Illinois, who make up the largest private-sector union workforce in the state.

While machinists in Joliet and union carpenters like Creasy in Peoria are unaffected by Rauner’s executive order last week, anxiety remains high. “It's going to happen eventually,” Creasy wrote of right to work. “And all of us in the trades know this. It's like a dark cloud following you; someday it's going to rain.”

Correction: This version of the story removes a quote that was misattributed to Peoria City Council Member Chuck Weaver.

Correction: This version of the story removes a quote that was misattributed to Peoria Council Member Charles Weaver.
Correction: This version of the story removes a quote that was misattributed to Peoria Council Member Charles Weaver.

Related News

Labor, Politics

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Labor, Politics

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter