Editorial: Is Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner anti-union? Or pro-taxpayer?


In 2009, a police officer for the city of Rockford shot and killed an unarmed man in a church basement.

Children attending daycare witnessed the incident. It drew national attention.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson protested. Racial tensions flared.


The officer, Oda Poole, was white. The unarmed man, Mark Anthony Barmore, was black.

The city moved to fire Poole. But nearly seven years later, he is still on administrative leave. A ruling by an arbitrator — a person who resolves disputes between employers and unionized workers — blocked the city’s efforts to fire him.

The rules that arbitrators follow are set in state labor laws. They’re also established through case precedent and enforced under union contracts.

Those rules bind the hands of local governments to discipline and fire employees such as Poole. His continued employment and the legal costs of trying to oust him have fallen on the backs of Rockford taxpayers.

Giving local governments more flexibility in bargaining with public employees is a goal of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s so-called turnaround agenda for Illinois — the agenda widely derided as “anti-union.” Rauner wants cities to be able to exclude certain topics from collective bargaining, including pay and benefits.

That’s likely a non-starter in this state. But his agenda includes less inflammatory, highly reasonable proposals to give local elected officials more control over collective bargaining as it relates to employee staffing, discipline, time off, seniority rules, the use of contractors and prevailing wage mandates.

Those aren’t anti-union. They’re pro-taxpayer.


Governments face alarmingly high personnel costs. Rockford’s costs for its police and fire departments consume roughly 80 percent of the city’s budget.

At the same time, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly over time has eroded the rights of local officials to make decisions about their own workforces. Lawmakers have codified into law policies and procedures that favor workers over employers and don’t take into account a city’s financial condition.

Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey has been outspoken about the need to balance out those laws. A recent arbitration ruling that hit Rockford will nearly double the amount of sick pay firefighters can cash out when they retire.

Those decisions shouldn’t be made by arbitrators who tend to favor unions. They should be made by elected leaders who can be held accountable by local voters. By local taxpayers.

Morrissey, whose city council passed a resolution backing Rauner’s turnaround agenda, says he is not a Democrat or a Republican. He is an independent who’s been straightforward with unions about Rockford’s tight finances. Organized labor twice tried to oust him as mayor.

He was particularly vocal about a 2014 state law signed by former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn that limits the ability of municipalities to decide how many firefighters should work at fire departments. Instead of letting fire chiefs do their jobs and decide staffing levels, they now have to negotiate staffing levels and codify them into labor contracts, giving firefighters deeper protection against furloughs or attrition or layoffs — the only tools city leaders sometimes have to reduce costs.

In Springfield, lawmakers don’t reduce the influence of organized labor. They slowly beef it up. But guess who pays.

Almost every suburban Chicago Democrat and a few Republicans voted with the Associated Fire Fighters of Illinois — and against their own local mayors — on the staffing bill.

Rauner would like to undo it. His agenda would give cities the right to exclude staffing levels from contract talks, since there are almost no levers left for mayors to pull in order to control costs.

But that gets wildly labeled as “union busting.” It’s a gross exaggeration, as lawmakers should explain to voters. Then they should compromise between Rauner’s agenda and the unions’.

Rauner also wants exemptions to prevailing wage laws that force cities to pay costly per-hour union rates. Prevailing wage laws drive up the costs of projects that don’t necessarily need the expertise of union labor — some do, but not all.

And because only a few construction firms can afford to pay workers those higher wages, prevailing wage laws keep smaller and minority-owed businesses from getting the contracts. The wage laws also make it more difficult, if not impossible, for cities to help ex-felons and other non-union workers get jobs.

Those big firms have strict hiring rules that can prohibit felons from getting jobs.

Where is the Illinois Legislative Black Caucus on this? Squarely in the pockets of the big union bosses.

Rauner is up against huge resistance — much of it from suburban and minority Democrats whose communities would benefit if Springfield loosened labor rules. Rockford is just one example.

Remember that when House Speaker Michael Madigan or Senate President John Cullerton claims to defend the middle class.

In reality they represent, and protect, union interests.

No, the two groups aren’t one and the same.


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