clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

SEIU's Balanoff: Illinois needs unions to balance wealth, elite's power in politics

SEIU President Tom Balanoff protests outside the Chicago Board of Education building on March 24, 2015, in Chicago. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Since his political campaign for governor, Bruce Rauner has made union leaders collectively Enemy No. 1, blaming them in large part for Illinois’ economic demise.

Tom Balanoff, the president of Illinois’ Service Employees International Union, is often the face of that criticism.

In a sit-down with the Chicago Sun-Times, Balanoff said he will take a more visible role — including visiting Springfield — in countering the messages Rauner has put forth about labor, including that union leaders have an outsized influence on politics.

Balanoff defends unions as serving a critical purpose in Illinois: to balance the wealth in society that he argues has increasingly shifted to the upper crust of the population. He blasted Rauner for taking aim at labor and for presenting a budget that offers deep cuts to social services in Illinois.

“When you do all of that, what’s the difference between us and a Third World nation?” Balanoff said. “Labor is pushing back. People miss that. That’s what we bring. We do help set a standard. We bring living wages, health insurance and retirement security. There has to be a voice that says: ‘Wait a minute, what about the everyday people?'”

RELATED: THE WATCHDOGS: Generous pension benefits only one part of state, city financial crisis

Since late January, Rauner has taken his Turnaround Agenda on tour throughout the state, hoping to persuade local governments to reject union platforms, such as: to no longer require non-union members who work under union contracts to pay so-called “fair share” fees; to reject collective bargaining; and to vote locally on whether that town should have a prevailing wage. Rauner’s agenda items so far have gone nowhere because of the Democratic supermajority in Springfield.

Still, Rauner has repeatedly argued that the weight of pension debt, which is crushing Illinois’ bond rating, raises questions over the power that unions wield over politicians. Rauner has repeatedly said it is an inherent conflict of interest for unions to give campaign contributions to those negotiating their contracts.

SEIU is one of the largest contributors to political campaigns in Illinois and nationally, offering up millions of dollars to fund the likes of Barack Obama, Gov. Pat Quinn and the unsuccessful mayoral bid of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

Balanoff say Rauner’s reliance on donations from millionaires and billionaires isn’t the way democracy should work. Rauner, whose background is in private equity, has made millions of dollars by investing public pension money. Rauner’s campaign fund holds about $20 million, with donations from three people, including himself. Rauner can tap an unlimited supply of dollars, having access to funds from some of the wealthiest people in the nation, Balanoff said.

“I think in the long run, there’s serious consequences for our democracy when you have the kind of money that’s coming into politics from this little handful of very, very rich people,” Balanoff said. “That’s not what we’re supposed to be about.”

Rauner has argued that for decades politicians cut deals with unions on pension promises that they knew were unsustainable. Lawmakers then skipped payments, or borrowed heavily from those pension funds, causing a hole that has spun into a $100 billion deficit. A recent Illinois Supreme Court decision made clear that the state has to pay up.

Balanoff framed his remarks on the disparity between the wealthy and the disappearing middle class, arguing that Rauner’s policy initiatives would only drive a greater wage gap.

“The value of labor is relative. If it’s going down, everybody is going down,” Balanoff said. “If union wages are going down, other workers’ wages are going down. Half of the workforce in this country has not seen in 20, 30, 40 years, the increase in the value of their labor.

“We have a low-wage economy established at all kinds of levels. Adjunct professors, Ph.D.s now in higher education are treated as contingent workers being paid by class. Most of them are eligible for public assistance. This is not a way to build a society,” Balanoff said. “Bruce Rauner seems to be the epitome that wants to say that business viability should only be measured by profitability.”

Rauner’s office declined to comment on Balanoff’s argument and pointed to the governor’s previous remarks, in which he argued that there is a conflict of interest between “government union bosses” and taxpayers.

While Rauner’s Turnaround Agenda has struggled to gain traction statewide, SEIU has suffered losses recently as well. The union backed Quinn for re-election and Garcia for mayor and both saw defeat.

Balanoff rejected the idea that those losses were a sign of diminishing union power.

“I don’t think those reflect that. I think Gov. Quinn is a very decent man. . . . I don’t think that Bruce Rauner got elected because of all his money and because people were so inspired by him. I think that, unfortunately, Quinn took most of the blame about what’s happened to the economy in the state,” Balanoff said.

Garcia’s late entry into the mayoral fray gave him a disadvantage. “That was a hard uphill,” Balanoff said.

Balanoff points to aldermanic races that SEIU got involved in that protected progressive incumbents and added to their caucus. Despite not backing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s re-election, he thinks they can work together.

“I don’t feel any ill will toward the mayor; he might, I’m not sure. Quite frankly, the mayor has a very challenging job before him. I certainly hope that all of us will be able to work together to move things ahead,” Balanoff said. “I think there’s a number of actions he has taken that have been supportive — the minimum wage . . . creating an opportunity for kids to go to City Colleges. Those are policies that go toward raising everyday people’s wages, to provide basics for families and opportunities for their kids.”