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Rauner fires anti-union shots ahead of first State of the State speech

Gov. Bruce Rauner on Monday praised laws that restrict the collective bargaining rights of federal government workers as “common sense” and “fair” — but Democrats and unions blasted his “unhelpful rhetoric and tone.”

The governor — who last week blamed unions for many of the state’s ills — wrote to state legislators in advance of Wednesday’s “State of the State” speech, asking them to look at laws that ban federal workers from striking and from collectively bargaining for their wages and benefits.

He described the federal restrictions, which go far beyond those imposed on state government workers in Illinois, as “common-sense bipartisan reforms to our employment rules that are fair to both state workers and taxpayers,” noting that they were introduced under President Jimmy Carter and ratified by President Ronald Reagan.

Rauner also pointed to disparities between the wages earned by private-sector employees and state workers for what he said was the same work.

For example, state employed barbers, who work in prisons, make $71,000, far more than the $45,000 the average Illinois barber makes, according to one of two slides he shared with state legislators. The state has in the past defended the pay differential as reflecting the danger of working with sharp implements around convicted criminals.

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Rauner’s slides also noted the differential between Illinois highway workers, who make $49,000, and the $36,000 average paid to state highway workers in five neighboring states.

Rauner said he had no plans to cut government workers’ salaries, but his letter made no promises about pay freezes, which his spokesman Lance Trover declined to discuss.

Trover also declined to talk about whether Rauner intends to introduce legislation that mirrors the federal laws he touted. In addition to barring state workers’ right to strike, collectively bargain over wages, benefits and pensions, and to benefit from automatic arbitration in labor disputes, those laws also changed federal pensions from “defined benefits” plans to hybrid pensions that also included Social Security and a 401k.

House Speaker Mike Madigan’s spokesman Steve Brown said the speaker is willing to work with the governor but that until Rauner offers some concrete legislation, he won’t “have something to talk about.”

But Senate President John Cullerton’s spokeswoman Rikeesha Phelon said Cullerton had “some concern” about the “tone the governor is taking.”

Cullerton believes that better legislation comes from working with, not against the unions, Phelon said, adding that Illinois has the lowest ratio of state employees to residents in the nation and that “the rhetoric we’ve heard from the governor is a long way from what we’ve found to be productive.”

Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, took particular issue with Rauner’s decision to label private sector employees as “working families.”

“It’s bizarre and outrageous for Bruce Rauner to suggest that public employees aren’t ‘working families.’” Lindall said. “He’s wrong to vilify workers who serve the public, earn middle-class wages and have a right to a voice through their union.”

And Lindall suggested that the governor had it backward when he compared state employment law to the federal system. “Every working person, whether in the public or the private sector, has a right to a voice at work and should be free to bargain for middle-class wages, affordable health care and a secure retirement,” he said.

Slides shared by Gov. Bruce Rauner with Illinois legislators on Monday.
Slides shared by Gov. Bruce Rauner with Illinois legislators on Monday.