PI Original Ellyn Fortino Monday September 22nd, 2014, 4:15pm

Worker Advocates Fearful Of Rauner's 'Anti-Labor' Agenda

Critics of GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner's stance on labor issues say his proposed policies would spell bad news for Illinois workers, retirees and unions.

Critics of GOP gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner's stance on labor issues say his proposed policies would spell bad news for Illinois workers, retirees and unions.

Mary Shesgreen with Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice said her group, which does not make political endorsements, is angry with incumbent Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn over pension reform legislation, however, "Bruce Rauner is much, much, much worse" on labor issues.

"This is a clear case where Rauner is the worst evil," she stressed. "He is explicitly and fiercely anti-labor, and he seems to particularly want to do damage to public sector unions, and that would be an outrage ... We fear that Bruce Rauner would try to pass right-to-work laws or other laws trying to cripple labor unions in Illinois. We think he would be bad for all working people in Illinois, not just organized labor."

Rauner, a millionaire venture capitalist from Winnetka who takes issue with “government union bosses,” has already come under fire from the labor community and the Quinn campaign for saying in the past that he favors reducing or eliminating the state's minimum wage.

The Republican candidate for governor's campaign, which did not immediately return a request for comment, maintains that Rauner currently holds a different view on the minimum wage. Rauner "supports a federal minimum wage increase that would raise Illinois’ minimum wage" as well as "raising the state minimum wage in conjunction with pro-business reforms," his campaign has said.

But Rauner's "real agenda," Shesgreen said, is "certainly to keep the minimum wage as low as he can get away with, and we think that's an outrage."

"We want to see every working person in the state with a living wage," she said. "Not just a living wage, but a wage that a person and a family can live on in a reasonable way."

Roberta Lynch, executive director of AFSCME Council 31, said Rauner has "in many cases" made a personal fortune in "well-documented, highly-questionable and unethical business deals."

Yet Rauner "has launched the most massive smear campaign against public employees and their unions that this state has ever seen," she said. "He has repeatedly in the media, mainly through paid ads, labeled unions corrupt institutions. By their nature they are corrupt, that is what he is claiming. We think that's ... slander. He's never introduced one shred of evidence to back that up."

Many of Rauner's "pro-business reforms" are also raising eyebrows.

Rauner supports state right-to-work initiatives. Turing the Land of Lincoln into a right-to-work state is not, however, among Rauner's biggest priorities, he claims. But the Republican businessman does favor "right-to-work zones" that allow "local communities to decide whether workers must join a union in order to get a job." 

Rauner's idea of letting counties in Illinois "decide for themselves whether to embrace right-to-work" is just one of his proposals to "lower the cost of doing business in Illinois and make job creation our top priority," according to his website

Critics say right-to-work policies are designed to control and weaken labor. The measures generally look to ban unions and employers from negotiating contracts that require workers to pay union dues or fees when they take a job covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

 "Right-to-work does not contribute to a massive improvement in the states [with such policies], and in fact, businesses rank it very low on their level of priorities in choosing where to put their companies," said Emily Twarog, assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign's School of Labor and Employment Relations. "I think that the main objective of right-to-work is to weaken the power of labor unions."

recent University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study showed that right-to-work laws lower worker earnings and union membership rates. Such initiatives also reduce the share of employees covered by health insurance and pension plans and increase the poverty rate among workers, according to the report.

The Illinois Policy Institute, a libertarian think tank that has received funding from Rauner, endorses right-to-work policies, arguing that the U.S. states with such "legislation are seeing their business favorability move in a positive direction."

The right-leaning research group also claims in a recently-released report that "the four largest government unions in Illinois collect more than $100 million in union dues and fees each year," and that "political donations, bloated overhead costs and generous union-employee salaries all take up the majority of these unions’ resources."

“No matter what someone’s opinion of unions is, it is now clear that they are not serving workers who are forced to pay dues just to keep their jobs, or taxpayers who are seeing their taxes increase year after year,” Paul Kersey, director of labor policy at the Illinois Policy Institute, said in a statement. “Government unions have lost sight of their actual purpose: representing workers in the workforce. Forcing workers to pay millions in dues and membership fees while using that money to consistently block the desperately needed reforms to pension systems and state spending is hurting taxpayers and state workers alike. Illinois should look to states like Wisconsin and Indiana for the union reforms that will give power back to workers while putting the state on the right path forward.”

Twarog said right-to-work promoters commonly argue that "unions are spending the dues on political campaigns that are bad for the state."

"That's a persuasive argument that the right-to-work people often make," she said.

However, "most unions collect separate funds for political action, and any union member who wants to opt of paying into political funds can choose to opt out of that," Twarog explained.

Lynch called the Illinois Policy Institute's comments "wrong and misleading."

"Our goal is to make sure that [the workers'] working conditions are safe and humane, and to ensure they have fair wages and benefits for the work that they do," she said. "I don't get a state pension, so why would I have an interest in blocking [pension] reform? The only reasons that we are opposed to the pension proposals that are being made is one, they are harmful to our members' economic well being. And two, they're unconstitutional. So you would think that a right-wing group like the Illinois Policy Institute would have some shred of respect for the Illinois Constitution."

"Our operations are transparent," Lynch added. "The Illinois Policy Institute is hiding who it's working for. It's not working for the taxpayers of Illinois, it's working for the Koch Brothers and other elitists who want to drive down the standard of living for working people in our society." 

Pension Reform

On pension reform, Rauner wants to "cap the current system and fully put in place a 401k-style program that is similar to the retirement plans of most Illinoisans." Rauner has said he would not move police and fire personnel to a 401k-style retirement plan, saying the two groups "should have a special deal." Rauner has not clarified the details of what that "special deal" would entail.

Twarog highlighted the key difference between pension and 401k-style systems.

"A pension gives you continual payments until you die. You paid into it, the employer has matched those payments ... You're guaranteed a payment for a longer period of time," she said. "Whereas in a 401k, the amount of money you have in there is the amount of money you have in there. When you pay into a 401k and you don't have a pension, at some point, say you live to 95, you may very well run out of the money that you've invested into that 401k. It's often the desire of businesses to use the 401k system over the pension system."

It is clear, Twarog added, that Rauner "plans on taking a very businessman approach to running the state."

"I don't think a state can be run in the same way a corporation can be run," she said. "Many would argue that Rauner's track record of running corporations definitely (does not) benefit the employees, so what does that mean for the average Illinoisan in terms of how he's going to run the state?"

Workers' Compensation Reform

The Winnetka businessman has also proposed workers' compensation reforms, claiming that the "2011 workers compensation legislation did not go far enough to correct Illinois' status as one of the most anti-business states in the nation."

"Despite the legislation, total payments per claim have only decreased by 1 percent," reads Rauner's economic blueprint. "Illinois workers' compensation requirements remain among the most expensive in the country with the fourth-highest insurance premiums in 2012."

But, Twarog said, if an Illinois business is suffering financial hardship because it is paying out too many worker compensation complaints, then "you probably need to revamp your health and safety regulations in the workplace and create a safer working environment." 

Rauner said the "state should update how injuries are apportioned to ensure employers pay for injuries that occur due to the worker's employment" and address the issue of "traveling employees" to "prevent claims that result while workers commute to work are are exposed to the same risks facing the general public."

Additional workers' compensation reforms backed by Rauner include eliminating "doctor shopping," which Twarog said could limit an employee's ability to get a second or third medical opinion about injuries. 

Merit Pay & Teacher Tenure 

In his education reform plan released earlier this month, Rauner said he supports merit pay systems for educators and wants to see "comprehensive structural change to teacher tenure."

"States like Florida have moved to an annual contract for all new teachers, ensuring that the best teachers stay in schools and low-performing teachers are removed," Rauner's plan on the topic of teacher tenure reads.

Aviva Bowen, director of communications for the Illinois Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed Quinn, said Rauner "is very clearly pushing to get rid of tenure, which simply ensures that teachers are afforded their right to due process."

"The Florida law he lauded eliminated tenure and tied teacher contracts to student test scores, which has never been proven to improve education," she said in a statement. "Rauner can propose all the debunked education reforms he wants, but if schools and students don’t have the resources they need to succeed, it’s meaningless. Not to mention, ask any teacher about the devastating effect of poverty on her work, and what Rauner’s plan to eliminate the minimum wage would do to students whose families are already struggling to make ends meet.

"Rauner has plenty of feel-good soundbites about our children, but no plan to fund education," Bowen added. "Rather, he offers divisive distractions while hoping no one will notice that his so-called budget would increase class sizes and decimate public schools. Either this wealthy CEO can’t do basic arithmetic, or he thinks working families are fools. I’m betting on the latter."

Overall, "Rauner’s Wall Street values are dangerous for Illinois’ working families," added Neal Waltmire, communications director of the Illinois Freedom PAC, which is associated with public employee unions.

"The vulture capitalist has outsourced jobs, cheated workers, advocated eliminating the minimum wage, and used his fortune to fund groups that are fighting to privatize Social Security and end Medicare as we know it," Waltmire said in a statement to Progress Illinois. "Rauner is unapologetic about his extreme views. When asked if there was anything the public could do to prevent Wall Street billionaires like him from wrecking the economy and ruining the lives of millions of families like they did in 2008, he said, 'markets are cyclical. Get over it.' Illinois’ families simply can’t afford to allow Bruce Rauner to run Illinois like one of his businesses."

Image: AP Photo/M. Spencer Green

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