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Government Commentary

Akst: State’s big story that wasn’t

The news media largely ignored an important political/economic story in Illinois this week.

Or so it seemed to me, but maybe that’s because I had been watching for the story and expected more.

On Tuesday morning, I saw the story from Reuters. I read it and was disappointed to learn that what I thought would happen ... happened.

I searched several other news websites for their versions, but found nothing. Maybe I looked at the wrong time or didn’t use the right search terms. Anything’s possible.

Here’s the story, why I thought it would garner major play, and my disappointment.

On Monday, labor leaders and state politicians met for a union-led “summit” at an AFL-CIO office in Burr Ridge. The AFL-CIO is one of about two dozen unions that formed the “We Are One Illinois” coalition.

Prominent Republicans and Democrats attended; House Speaker Michael Madigan was notably absent.

Why would a meeting be major news?

It’s well publicized that Illinois’s unfunded pension liability is about $97 billion and grows by an estimated $17 million a day. Our pension crisis – worst in the nation – also caused a late-January credit rating downgrade.

Less well known, however, is public sector anger, voiced by unions, that unions have been shut out of negotiations (disclosure: I’m a member of the University Professionals of Illinois).

Thus, unions have been howling that they and policymakers should convene a summit to work things out. I thought that if the summit ever happened, it would be a big deal.

I was wrong.

The summit lasted three hours. I think “epic fail” would be a reasonable characterization of its outcome.

Reuters said the meeting ended “without any deals or significant breakthroughs,” and further, that there was no “statement of consensus or a commitment to meet again.”

Democrat Daniel Biss, who cosponsored the latest failed legislation in the just concluded, failed session of the Legislature, attended Monday’s meeting.

“I’m glad that everyone was in the same room,” Biss said, “but at some point, you have to stop talking about talking and start crafting a solution. That didn’t happen.” He added that it’s “not even clear whose court the ball is in.”

I’m disappointed because I wanted to be wrong, but I should have known better. Gov. Pat Quinn tried something similar a couple months ago and his efforts failed just as spectacularly.

Whenever I heard unions call for a summit, my gut told me that nobody really wants to meet with them, and that a summit was a bad public relations move.

I tend to believe unions have been ignored and shut out of negotiations, and I’m absolutely certain that hard-working, dedicated, modest wage earners who serve this state are going to take “reform” in the teeth and elsewhere.

But I also believe the “Hey, let’s have lunch” approach won’t work.

To my thinking, a better strategy would be for the We Are One Illinois coalition to craft a one-page document that explicitly details the cuts, freezes, penalties and other mayhem public sector workers will endure, and then disseminate that information like crazy. We need to win the talking points battle.

And winning that battle means coming to terms with a painful reality.

Public sector workers and unions didn’t cause this crisis: We’re the ones who never missed a payment. Decades of spineless, unethical, illegal refusal by the state to honor lawful collective bargaining agreements caused the crisis.

However, we are going to bear the brunt of fixing this mess.

Closing corporate tax loopholes – which I strongly favor – will help, but it’s only a drop in the bucket. Finding new revenue – which I’m lukewarm about if it means raising taxes – is unrealistic.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at

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