According to the Paxton Record, Union workers flooded the board room in the Administrative Center in Watseka last Thursday morning, urging the Iroquois County Board to stand united against Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal to create right-to-work zones.
Right-to-work zones, or empowerment zones, would limit the power of labor unions, allowing voters to decide if workers in their communities should be forced to join a union or pay associated dues.
The newly elected Republican governor has been pressing Illinois cities and counties to approve resolutions in support of his proposal, which he says would help boost job creation and the state’s economy.
The Iroquois County Board’s policy and procedure committee had a proposed resolution supporting Rauner’s right-to-work proposal on the agenda for Thursday’s meeting. The resolution, prepared by the governor’s office, also would support prevailing wage reform and workers’ compensation reform.
“Voters in our community should be allowed to decide via referendum whether or not employees should be forced to join a union or pay dues as a condition of employment,” the proposed resolution says. “Local empowerment zones will help attract jobs and make our community more attractive for businesses.”
Dave Beck, staff representative for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, urged the board to oppose Rauner’s proposal. Earlier, more than 10 union workers expressed their concerns that the right-to-work zones would drive down wages, hurting the economy, and would be illegal.
“You all didn’t come up with this idea out of the blue. The governor is going county by county, city by city, pressuring you folks to adopt these resolutions,” Beck said. “And I think we have ask ourselves, ‘Why is he doing this when the issue before us in this state is the budget?’ The state of Illinois’ budget is in terrible shape, and instead of focusing on fixing that, he and his employees are going out over the state, spending all this time and energy, trying to get us on this issue. And it has nothing to do with the actual problem.
“So I ask you, don’t play this game. Instead of passing this resolution, go back to the governor and say, ‘Governor, this isn’t the issue that’s important to us right now. The issue that’s important to us is the state budget. We want you to work with the Legislature to make that work.’”
County Board Chairman Kyle Anderson of Beaverville said he doubts Rauner’s right-to-work proposal will advance in the Legislature — a sentiment shared by board member Russell Bills of Watseka.
“I can’t imagine it going very far,” Bills said.
Details of the proposal
The proposed resolution — which will be up for further discussion, but not a vote, at the county board’s next full board meeting on April 14 — says current Illinois law creates a “one-size-fits-all” approach to collective bargaining for local units of government, which creates added costs ultimately passed on to taxpayers. The resolution says voters and local officials should determine what is a subject of bargaining, not the state.
“Local control of bargaining would allow voters or local governments to determine if certain topics should be excluded from collective bargaining, including contracting, wages, provisions of health insurance, use of employee time, required levels of staffing, procedures and criteria for personnel evaluations, academic performance, conduct and discipline in school,” the resolution reads.
The resolution adds that current state law sets “thresholds” for workers on state and local construction projects, increasing costs significantly. By repealing the Illinois Prevailing Wage Act and the requirements for “project labor agreements,” it would give local governments more control over such costs, the resolution says.
The resolution also says that Illinois’ workers’ compensation costs are the seventh highest in the nation — and more than double the costs of Indiana. Local governments would see a “major cost savings” as a result of reforming the workers’ compensation law.
Unions united in opposition
The union laborers and representatives in attendance were adamantly opposed to the proposal.
Steven Pfingsten of Watseka, vice president of Laborers’ Local 751, called it a “backdoor anti-union effort.”
“It is a thinly disguised political maneuver by the governor that has been ruled illegal by the state’s attorney general,” Pfingsten said. “I am sure that any effort to enact these types of laws will cost our community dearly in lost money attempting to defend an illegal action.”
Pfingsten argued that the proposal would drive down wages for all workers, including non-union members. He added that workers in “right-to-work” states earn more than $5,000 less per year than those in states without such laws. Pfingsten also noted that eight of the 12 states with the highest unemployment rates have “right-to-work” laws. When the wages are driven down, the economy suffers and jobs are lost, he said.
Ryan C. Anderson, business manager/secretary-treasurer for Painters District Council No. 30, wrote a letter to the county board saying that Rauner’s right-to-work proposal as well as his proposal to repeal the Prevailing Wage Act would be against the state’s constitution.
Anderson said that Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan “clearly indicates” in a written opinion that only a state, through the actions of the Legislature, can enact a “right-to-work” law. Madigan further has ruled that counties, municipalities and school districts, as well as other local units of government, must comply with the provisions of the Prevailing Wage Act when seeking bids and awarding contracts for construction or demolition of public works.
Anderson asked the board to consider the costs the county would incur in attempting to defend “an illegal action.”
“Certainly, my organization will defend the constitutional rights of union members and the legality, under federal and state law, of union security agreements,” Anderson wrote.
Michael Smith, business manager of Laborers’ Local 751 and president of the Kankakee Federation of Labor, called the right-to-work proposal “a race to the bottom.”
“It hurts not only union people, but it hurts non-union people, because as our wage threshold comes up it affects all folks, because the non-union tries to keep up so their places don’t become an eyesore,” Smith said.
Steve Magruder, president of the Kankakee Construction and Trades Council, said the right-to-work plan would be “a detrimental blow to this community ... (and) state of Illinois.”
Dale Strough, a Watseka attorney, said the right-to-work zones would further drive down local wages, hurting Iroquois County’s economy.
“Right now we have an unemployment rate of about 6.5 percent. That is a little bit lower than it is in Kankakee (County) or down in Vermilion (County). It’s a little bit higher than it is in Ford or Champaign (counties),” Strough said. “But unemployment (is) not the problem. The problem is the wage levels. ... Seventy to 80 percent (of students in the Iroquois West school district) are in the poverty level, yet the unemployment rate level is (only) 6.5 percent. That’s not welfare. That’s low wages.
“What we need to shoot for is good, middle-class jobs, wherever those might come from. But again, you can’t race to the bottom. It exacerbates the problem. It means more people who can’t maintain their homes amid declining property values; it means less revenue for (the county). Don’t give into it. ... There’s lots of things you can do to generate revenue that maybe you haven’t done. But competing with union sweatshops is not the way to go.”
John Willard, the district director for the American Welding Society, said union wages would suffer if the proposal passes.
“The only way we can entice people to pick welding as a trade is if there’s something other than poverty in it for them,” Willard said. “Driving down those wages to where welders aren’t going to live a decent life and eat steak once a week and take their family on vacation, it’s just wrong that people would want that for someone else. ... It’s not right; it’s not fair; and you shouldn’t do it.”
Donald Price, a retired state employee, expressed concern that if the county adopted a right-to-work zone, many local businesses would suffer.
“One of the reasons you don’t want this is because these union people are your customers — you people who own businesses — and if you want them to continue being your customers they’ve got to have some decent pay,” Price said. “Without unions, we’re going to go back to how things were before 1900. Child labor? Is that what you want?”