CHICAGO – Across the middle of the country, organized labor has taken one hit after another in places that were once union strongholds: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana, where workers lost bargaining power and saw their ranks shrink, leaving them weaker than almost any time in the past century.
The notable exception is Illinois. Here, it’s almost as though the Great Recession and the Republican resurgence of 2010 never happened. Public employees still have their defined-benefit pensions. Unions still negotiate and collect dues. And little public blame has been heaped on labor for the state’s financial problems.
But the ability of Illinois unions to withstand the pressures that broke down their colleagues elsewhere is back on display this week as lawmakers try for the umpteenth time to confront the nearly $100 billion shortfall in the public-employee pension system, the largest in the nation.
The Legislature is under pressure to consider slashing pension benefits or requiring employees to contribute more to their own retirement funds or to retire at a later age. It’s the kind of overhaul most states did several years ago to ease the crushing weight of growing obligations to retirees, combined with declining revenue.
Or, lawmakers might do what they’ve done multiple times before: nothing.
The outcome could determine whether Illinois’ dismal finances get a long-delayed fix or whether one of labor’s toughest redoubts reaffirms its power by holding off any major changes in benefits.
“Whether you like that outcome or not, you have to say, ‘That’s an organization that has some political strength, and that uses it,’ ” said Robert Bruno, a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.
Much of labor’s success here, no doubt, derives from the fact that President Barack Obama’s home state is a citadel for Democrats who have long enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with unions.
But Democrats aren’t solely responsible for the current predicament. Some of the sharpest growth in employee benefits happened when Republicans were in charge.
Even some of the most direct victims of the state’s woeful budget refuse to blame state employees and their comparatively generous benefits.
“We are a state that supports the workers. That’s just who we are,” said Judith Gethner, a lobbyist for hundreds of social-service agencies, mental health providers and other nonprofits that have waited months for Illinois to pay billions of dollars in unpaid bills.
Gethner has pushed for state pension reform. But she says slashing employee benefits runs counter to the culture of a place where unions have long been “the backbone” of Chicago, with its outsize influence over the state and a history that traces back to the Haymarket riots and other labor milestones.
Chicago Democrats control the most powerful jobs in the state – governor, House speaker and Senate president, plus attorney general and secretary of state. But the unions have maintained friendships with many moderate Republicans, giving them occasional endorsements and donating more to their campaigns than in neighboring states.
In the 2010 elections, for example, 13 percent of the money Illinois public-employee unions gave to political campaigns went to Republicans, according to an analysis of data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. In Wisconsin, public-employee unions gave less than 3 percent of their contributions to GOP candidates that year, when Gov. Scott Walker was elected and began his effort to end most collective bargaining.
Historically, Illinois Republicans “have not gone to war against unions,” said former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican who enjoyed the support of some labor groups. “We had our differences, but I always felt union members were hard-working, and from a selfish point of view, they were better workers when government worked well.”
Edgar noted that his GOP predecessor, Jim Thompson, was in office when one of the biggest expansions of collective bargaining rights in state history occurred. Those alliances also helped unions secure a constitutional provision in 1970 that says their pension benefits can’t be cut – the most oft-cited obstacle when lawmakers have declined year after year to trim the amounts that retirees receive.
Henry Bayer, who started as an organizer for AFSCME Local 31 more than 35 years ago and now is its executive director, notes that workers have not gone unscathed. The state’s largest public-employee union is currently suing Gov. Pat Quinn to get back pay it says members were promised in a salary increase two years ago.
“Not that [lawmakers] don’t do bad things to us,” Bayer said. “But it’s not like Indiana or Wisconsin, where there’s just outright, unbridled hostility.”
Illinois’ problems are probably worse than those places, due to years of spending more than the state took in and not making full payments to its pension funds.
In Wisconsin, for example, Walker argued that effectively ending collective bargaining for most public workers was a necessary cost-saving move. Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and the GOP-controlled Legislature approved “right-to-work” legislation, which prohibits unions from requiring workers to pay dues, as a way to attract companies that would create jobs.
In Illinois, a right-to-work bill introduced earlier this year didn’t get as much as a committee hearing.
Like much that happens in Illinois’ topsy-turvy political world, the allegiances and public stances on pension reform do not break down as one might expect.
The state’s highest-profile Democrats – Quinn, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and House Speaker Michael Madigan – have at least outwardly pressed the urgent need to deal with pension benefits. But Senate President John Cullerton, another Chicago Democrat, declared recently that the pension woes are not a crisis. Many rank-and-file Dems loathe voting against unions and have led the resistance to more substantial reform. So have some rank-and-file Republicans.
Meanwhile, the unions have not sat quietly. The Chicago Teachers Union wrested concessions from Emanuel in a 2012 strike, and one union leader said the former White House chief of staff would need “every damn dime” of his roughly $5 million campaign fund to win re-election in 2015. After state union workers booed Quinn at last year’s state fair, the governor canceled his main event there this year.
In Illinois, “there’s an acceptance that the labor movement isn’t alien,” Bruno said. “And it isn’t bad.”