Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner

Doubek: Rauner has yet to sell anti-union agenda to ‘silent middle’

SHARE Doubek: Rauner has yet to sell anti-union agenda to ‘silent middle’
SHARE Doubek: Rauner has yet to sell anti-union agenda to ‘silent middle’

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Earlier this summer, someone said to me something along the lines of, “I support what Rauner is trying to do, except that union stuff. I really don’t get what he’s trying to do to unions.”

I suspect there are a lot of Illinoisans who have been thinking the same thing. If you’re not an activist, far-right Republican, or an activist, far-left, dyed-in-the-wool Democrat who studied Gov. Bruce Rauner before the general election, you’re somewhere in that silent-majority middle, surprised at how vehement Rauner is in insisting upon changes for unions.


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Before he announced his candidacy, Rauner talked and wrote about his distaste for the way he saw “union bosses” in a corrupt, conflict-ridden cabal, primarily with Democratic lawmakers. Unions fuel their campaigns and, in return, secure generous salaries and benefits for their members, he said. Republican activists heard this theme from him, but once the primary was past, that line of attack nearly disappeared until Inauguration Day. In the general election campaign, he used to say he was “pro union,” noting his grandfather’s union membership.

After he took office, the attacks and the anti-union ideas flowed freely. Unions should not collect “fair-share” fees from government workers who don’t belong to the union. Unions shouldn’t be allowed to make campaign donations, he said. The state should have “right-to-work” zones where local governments could decide whether union fees are collected and whether to pay prevailing wage rates. Rauner traveled to several downstate and suburban communities early on and then pushed mayors and councils to endorse his anti-union ideas to pressure super-majority Democratic lawmakers to go along. Every plan he’s offered since May has had language that alters collective bargaining or prevailing wage rules.

In a state that has voted more Democratic blue in recent presidential election years, the anti-union aspects of the governor’s Turnaround Tour largely failed. After all, Democratic super majorities still were elected along with Rauner last November. Of course, they were elected from a map Democrats drew and with campaign money and workers that largely came from unions.

That’s partly why Rauner’s pushback against unions failed. Another reason is that most of us know public or private union members. Republicans belong to unions, too. They are our parents, our friends, our neighbors. Many of them seem to work hard. Sure, they get paid pretty well and have enviable pensions and other benefits, like plenty of paid days off. But there’s another reason Rauner’s anti-union crusade hasn’t worked. He simply hasn’t done an effective job of explaining how unions drive up costs for all of us.

Last week in the governor’s office, Rauner finally hit upon an explanation Illinois taxpayers can understand.

The Illinois Senate passed a bill that gives Rauner the two-year property tax freeze he long has campaigned on, as well as a change in the school funding formula that Rauner supports. But he argued the bill also must give local governments control over what’s included in collective bargaining. Why?

“Whether it’s bidding, contracting, what gets bargained, what doesn’t. That should be controlled locally,” he said. “If we don’t include that in our legislation and we freeze property taxes for two years … as soon as the two years is up, they’re going to pop up and frankly accelerate in a lot of communities beyond what they otherwise would have. The real fix is to get local control of costs.”

Wham, there it is.

If we freeze property taxes, but can’t at the same time have more control over future union wages and benefits, then our property taxes really will skyrocket in two years to make up for stagnant union wages and more.

That hurts most of us right in the wallet. And it’s an argument that’s ripe for selling to the masses in an ad campaign Rauner can afford.

Madeleine Doubek is chief operating officer for Reboot Illinois.

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