Gov. J.B. Pritzker and his relationship with organized labor

There’s nobody in Springfield with the authority and might to convince the politically powerful unions to back down a bit. Pritzker has to find a different, uncharted way.

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Gov. J.B. Pritzker speaks to the media outside of the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C., on July 14 after meeting with President Joe Biden about the administration’s infrastructure plan.

Saul Loeb/AFP

This past May, Illinois House Deputy Majority Leader Jehan Gordon Booth, D-Peoria, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker worked out a deal with some key state business groups to mandate seven days of paid leave per year for every employee in Illinois. Workers wouldn’t have to give any reasons for the guaranteed paid leave.

But organized labor, in particular some Chicago union leaders, angrily came out against it, arguing that the bill’s home rule preemption language would prevent Chicago from eventually enacting an even broader ordinance.

I asked Gov. Pritzker the other day if he planned to bring the paid leave bill back next year.

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“I want to expand paid leave,” the governor said. “We’ll continue to work with legislators to make sure that we’re overcoming the hesitancy. But yeah, I’m not going to stop fighting for more paid leave for people across the state.”

I had talked to some downstate legislators and labor folks after the bill fell apart and they were clearly upset because the legislation would’ve been a boon to workers in their part of the state.

“It’s been deeply concerning to me that when you get outside the City of Chicago, and particularly when you get to central, southern Illinois, paid leave is non-existent. Non-existent,” Pritzker said, repeating himself for emphasis.

“Nothing happens instantaneously, usually, in Springfield,” Pritzker said. “And sometimes it takes a session or two to get something done, and sometimes more than that, but I’m impatient. So, I’m going to keep working.”

Pritzker’s Springfield recent news media interviews to kick off his reelection campaign were held at the downtown office of the Laborers Union. Early union support was crucial to his 2018 primary victory and Pritzker has trumpeted their causes.

But some cracks beyond the paid leave proposal emerged during the spring session. A small union local held up an important bill for the state’s burgeoning data center industry over the hiring of a tiny handful of non-union workers. Labor had targeted a non-union contractor at a refinery a few years ago, then agreed to set aside their bill, but when it reemerged this year a host of industries were targeted by what some business groups labeled as “forced unionization.”

And, of course, organized labor has put a brick on the climate/energy bill that Pritzker wants passed over worries that coal and gas-fired electric power plants will be closed. Almost two months after talks broke down, little to no progress has been made.

So, I asked Pritzker how he can maintain his relationship with organized labor while still saying, “Folks, maybe you’re going a little too far here.”

As expected, Pritzker claimed he has an “excellent” relationship with organized labor. “We talk all the time. And I think that having a good relationship means that you say what you really think, and you share your concerns with one another. And we do that with one another. So, there are going to be disagreements that occur, and you got to work through these things.”

On the climate/energy bill, Pritzker said he believes there’s a “misunderstanding about whether we’re talking about 2035 or 2045” for his decarbonization goals.

“The reality is that the industry itself, the coal industry for example, has said that they can get [carbon] sequestration to 90 percent by 2035. They’re the ones who volunteered that to begin with. And so, we want to make sure that happens. But we’re not trying to close them down in 2035, we want to go to 2045, 24 years from now.”

I’m pretty sure it’s far more complicated than that, and I’ve been hearing from some very depressed folks in the past week when I’ve asked about the prospects for a deal anytime soon.

When an energy bill was negotiated while the anti-union Bruce Rauner was governor, the unions agreed to drop their demands for some all-important prevailing wage language in order to get a deal done to save a couple of nuclear power plants. Now, the unions have prevailing wage in this new bill, but are also pushing the pro-union Pritzker hard to stand with them against his own stated desires to eventually decarbonize the electric power industry.

Union leadership isn’t as cohesive as it was when they were all banding together against Rauner. And now that Michael Madigan is no longer the House speaker, there’s nobody in Springfield with the authority and might to convince the politically powerful unions to back down a bit. Pritzker has to find a different, uncharted way.

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Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and

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