It’s been a bit more than 100 days since Republican Bruce Rauner became Governor of Illinois. Despite the enormous financial problems facing our state, he has yet to propose specific methods of dealing with our deficit and our debt. He has yet to propose any tax reform. But he has been very active on one of his pet projects – killing unions.
Rauner claims that union-negotiated salaries have caused our state’s financial crisis. He accused unions that represent public employees, such as firefighters, police and teachers, of manipulating elections by contributing to campaigns of elected officials. In his State of the State speech in February, Rauner said the state should ban political contributions by public employee unions.
His most significant action thus far has been to stop the payment of union dues by workers who are not members, but who benefit from union contracts, so-called “fair share” payments. Rauner’s anti-union policies may not get very far. His proposal that communities be allowed to create local “right-to-work zones” conflicts with federal labor laws, which only allow states to pass such laws. Unions have sued Rauner to prevent his “fair share” order, and the Republican comptroller has refused to put these fees into an escrow account pending a final decision.
Unions have been gradually losing public support as they have lost membership. From the 1930s through the 1960s, about two-thirds of Americans approved of labor unions in Gallup polls. That proportion has gradually fallen to barely over half in 2014. Since the 1960s, the proportion of workers in unions has fallen from one quarter to one tenth.
To those who believe that unions have too much power to influence government, here is a surprising statistic. For every dollar that labor unions and other public-interest groups spend on lobbying, large corporations and their associations spend $34. Of the 100 organizations that spend the most on lobbying, 95 represent business. The largest companies now have upwards of 100 lobbyists representing them. Lawmakers in Washington and in state capitals are besieged daily by lobbyists representing the interests of corporate America, not by union members.
The gains won by unions in wages and benefits over many decades raised the standard of living of all Americans. These gains also can raise costs. When teachers’ salaries go up, so do the costs of public schools. But paying teachers good salaries benefits our whole society by making this most important profession more attractive to the best students and by strengthening the middle class. Paying factory workers good salaries can raise the cost of automobiles and other goods, but the 20th-century gains in factory wages contributed to the strong American economy. As unions declined, workers’ wages stagnated, and the share of total income in the US that goes to the middle class has fallen from 53% to 46%. The loss of good-paying manufacturing jobs overseas is one of the causes of our economic problems.
Unions are democracy in action, created by the working poor to speak with their voice. Capitalists and governments fought them everywhere they grew. If threats of jail and loss of job were not enough, armed violence with the overwhelming power of the state was employed. The celebration of labor that happens across the world every year on May 1 came about due to the Haymarket incident in Chicago in 1886, itself the result of police shooting of striking workers. Every dictatorship of the left or right seeks to destroy the power of unions. Unions are much more democratic organizations than corporations, representing average Americans rather than wealthy stockholders and CEOs.
What is often said about democracy should also be said about unions: they are not the best we could imagine, but they are the best we have. For those who can’t afford to buy a seat at a party fundraiser, who can’t pay for a lobbyist, who can’t invite politicians out to eat or to play golf or fly a jet, no other form of collective power is more successful and more democratic.
The struggle between unions and business is about money and power: the boardroom or the workers. The essence of a democratic system, and its challenge, is to allow this struggle to take place peacefully, to insure that both sides follow the laws, to allow corporations and unions the freedom to compete.
That’s not good enough for conservatives like Rauner, Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and every other Republican Party prominence. They don’t want a fair competition. They see nothing positive about unions and never discuss a fair fight. Their desire to destroy unions has not diminished as unions have declined in power – it has grown.
The wages of a typical Walmart worker qualify them for welfare. Walmart has fought unions for control of its workers with every legal and illegal tactic: billions are at stake. Walmart funds Republican politicians to support the fight against unions and to stall any raise in the minimum wage.
Listen to Bruce Rauner. He has not positioned himself at the Republican extreme, like Walker, Cruz, and many others. He must live with a Democratic legislature. But he hates unions like the CEO he used to be, who doesn’t want to hear what workers have to say and who is fighting them every day for money and power. If he has his way, our whole democracy will suffer.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 28, 2015