On August 10, Gov. Pat Quinn visited Caterpillar machinists on a picket line in Joliet, donating $10,000 to a union strike fund. But Quinn offered no position on the walkout, except bromides such as “believe in yourselves” to machinists who had been on strike for more than three months.
On August 10 Gov. Pat Quinn visited Caterpillar machinists on a picket line in Joliet, donating $10,000 to a union strike fund. But Quinn offered no position on the walkout, except bromides such as “believe in yourselves” to machinists who had been on strike for more than three months.
One week later the International Association of Machinists Local 851 settled on a new contract that included a wage freeze and reduced benefits – despite the fact that Caterpillar had just turned a 67 percent second quarter profit. The agreement was generally seen as a painful loss for labor.
The relationship between Quinn and unions is shaped by a fierce dispute with public employees represented by AFSCME Council 31, a battle almost as bitter as the fight between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. But the governor’s hands-off approach to Caterpillar is arguably one example of how Quinn is an inexperienced advocate for labor.
“Quinn hits all the progressive notes, but he has never had to do anything but talk about unions before,” says Christopher Mooney a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “He is in over his head.”
A Disappointment to Labor
Thrust into the governorship in 2009 following the impeachment of Rod Blagojevich, Quinn soon tangled with unions over a bill to slash the pension benefits of future public employees. The General Assembly passed the measure in March 2010, but it contributed to labor mostly not backing Quinn in a close 2010 Democratic primary.
Quinn did win labor’s support in his general election race against Republican State Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington). AFSCME Council 31 formed an alliance with Quinn, and most larger state unions offered support. Of the $24.0 million Quinn raised, $11.4 million was from labor. Quinn defeated Brady by 32,000 votes – 46.8 percent to 45.9 percent.
Labor was perhaps more against Brady than for Quinn. Asked about his support for the governor, which may have turned the election, Henry Bayer, executive director of AFSMCE Council 31, told the State Journal-Register in September 2011 that Quinn “was running against Bill Brady, whose anti-union record is unblemished.”
Today, AFSCME’s opposition toward Quinn is virtually unqualified. “The governor has adopted and implemented the Brady program,” says Anders Lindall, spokesman for AFSCME Council 31. AFSCME fired off a letter prior to the Democratic National Convention contending that, “Governor Quinn’s actions in our home state directly contradict our party’s professed values.”
According to AFSCME, actions include canceling the raises of 26,000 public employees last year because, Quinn says, the General Assembly did not appropriate the money. AFSCME sued over the raises in a case that is still before a Cook County Judge.
From Andrew Cuomo in New York to Jerry Brown in California, Democratic governors have antagonized public employees as they deal with state fiscal crises. Emanuel and his onging battle with the Chicago Teachers Union is an example closer to home of Democrats tangling with public workers. And Republican governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin use economic hard times to directly attack workers' collective bargaining rights.
Regardless of the political moment, though, Quinn took a key initial misstep with AFSCME when he denied pay raises set out in a collective bargaining contract. “He made a promise and then reneged on it,” Mooney says.
Quinn also defied AFSMCE on state facilities. In June, the governor announced the shut down of seven corrections and juvenile justice facilities and four health care centers, which would result in the displacement of about 2,400 public employees.
Facility closings are a complex issue for progressives, as they are slammed by AFSCME but supported by prison reform and developmental disability groups. “By fighting closures of facilities that are no longer needed, state government employee union leaders are protecting the status quo of half-empty, very expensive facilities and continuing to waste taxpayer money,” says Quinn spokeswoman Brooke Anderson.
But even if the governor is right on the merits of facility closings, Quinn did not properly communicate with AFSCME. A downstate circuit court judge has issued a temporary restraining order to the prison and juvenile justice closings, ruling Quinn broke the state contract with AFSCME by not negotiating over the impact of the shutdowns.
Pensions are the greatest rift between Quinn and labor. Quinn has made dealing with an estimated $83 billion unfunded pension liability his top priority. But the governor mostly ignores labor on the issue, dismissing a union framework in August. And recently, such as a State Fair appearance at which union members booed Quinn off the stage, the governor has mischaracterized public employee pension benefits as lavish.
After legislation fizzled in May and again in August that would give public employees the “choice” of reduced pension benefits or a loss of guaranteed retiree health care, Quinn declared a “grassroots campaign” for pension reform. It was a curious move since the only actual grassroots campaign regarding pensions thus far is a push by public and private sector unions against Quinn.
“A grassroots community campaign to reduce pension benefits and health care benefits for retirees is pretty startling for a Democratic governor,” says Robert Bruno, director of the University of Illinois-Chicago labor studies department. “Quinn certainly has a tough financial environment in which to bargain, but his austerity argument is not that different from Scott Walker's.”
Quinn has shown his support for labor at times. These include actions such as a 2010 Project Labor Agreements act that guarantees union pay for construction workers, and, more indirectly, getting a tax increase through the General Assembly in 2011. Spokeswoman Anderson contends that Quinn “has an excellent relationship with the labor community”, singling out support from the United Auto Workers, Teamsters, Painters, and Operating Engineers.
And while Bruno unfavorably compares Quinn to Walker, the labor studies professor says that, unlike Walker, Quinn is not fighting an ideological battle against unions. “Quinn is not a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Bruno says.
Quinn the Reformer
But Quinn is not exactly fighting an ideological battle for labor either.
In his 1989 book The New Politics of Inequality, Thomas Edsall theorizes that there are two types of progressives – substantive reformers and procedural reformers.
Substantive reformers want to use government toward greater social equality. For example, they might focus on expanding health care or education funding, or strengthening the rights of workers to earn a living wage. Procedural reformers focus on changing government itself. They might push for more government transparency or stronger campaign finance laws. Christopher Hayes of The Nation has written of procedural reformers, “Rather than trying to win the game, they’re trying to change the rules.”
In practice these two approaches exist on a continuum with most progressives being both substantive and procedural reformers. But just as labor exists more on the substantive end of this continuum, Quinn has spent most of his career firmly planted on the procedural end.
Quinn made his name through the Coalition for Political Honesty, a group that in 1980 successfully pushed to reduce the number of General Assembly members. His next big move was helping to create the Citizens Utility Board watchdog group. And Quinn even created a tea party movement before the conservative Tea Party of today. In 1998, as a tribute to the Boston Tea Party, Quinn urged citizens to send Gov. Jim Edgar tea bags to protest an increase in state legislator salaries.
Now Quinn wants pension “reform” by going after retired state workers who collect an annual pension just north of $25,000. Quinn has mostly framed the issue as another broad crusade for which citizens must combat government waste. “Governor Quinn is making the difficult decisions necessary to restore fiscal stability to Illinois after decades of mismanagement,” Anderson says.
But the governor at times loses sight of the nuance that while public employees collect (and religiously contribute to their) pensions, pension debt and unfunded obligations come from past governors and legislatures sifting money out of the retirement system. In not engaging unions on pensions or presenting a more contextualized analysis of the problem, Quinn alienates himself from the teachers and social service employees that represent government efforts to enhance social equality.
“He lacks understanding about the importance of unions,” Mooney says. “There is no strategic vision.”
Quinn’s failure to either constructively work with AFSCME or more generally show himself to be a friend of labor has obvious consequences for his political career, i.e. labor could throw their weight behind an opponent in the 2014 Democratic primary.
But the strained relationship has more immediate consequences for labor, namely whether they can still work with the Democratic governor.
“We expected more collaboration from Quinn,” says Jim Reed, director of governmental relations with the Illinois Education Association. “I hope we can still work with him in a collaborative way.”