Bruce Rauner’s campaign for governor of Illinois hit a rough spot when it was revealed that he was talking about lowering the minimum wage.
That’s right, lowering.
At a December, 2013, Republican campaign forum, the wealthy candidate declared, “I will advocate moving the Illinois minimum wage back to the national minimum wage. I think we’ve got to be competitive here in Illinois. It’s critical we’re competitive. We’re hurting our economy by having the minimum wage above the national. We’ve got to move back to the national.”
Practically, what that would have meant was cutting the state’s 8.25-per-hour wage guarantee down to the federal rate of $7.25-per-hour.
Politically, what that meant was trouble because, as the Chicago Tribune noted, the statement “had threatened to upend a carefully crafted campaign aimed at convincing Republican primary voters and independents that the man who is potentially the wealthiest candidate ever to run for public office in the state was a regular guy.”
So Rauner backtracked, declaring that he was being “flippant” and that he was actually interested in increasing wages. (Never mind that tape of the radio interview in which the candidate was quoted as explaining that “I have said, on a number of occasions, that we could have a lower minimum wage or no minimum wage.”)
The flip-flop worked. Rauner was elected governor last November.
He still avoids the minimum-wage trap, even going so far as to suggest now that he wants to hike the rate—though he is currently objecting to moves by the Illinois state Senate to do just that.
But Rauner remains an ardent advocate for positions that are all but certain to reduce wages.
Last week, Rauner was talking up the idea of letting Illinois cities and counties reject the state’s labor laws and implement local “right-to-work zones,” where new rules could make it harder for unions to organize and effectively bargain for pay and benefit hikes.
This week, Rauner has moved unilaterally to overturn long-established models for collecting dues from state workers who are represented by public-employee unions. The governor claims that asking workers to pay their fair share for union representation violates the US Constitution.
In fact, Rauner’s the one who is operating outside the law, says American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch, who calls the governor’s executive order “a blatantly illegal abuse of power.”
“Perhaps as a private equity CEO Rauner was accustomed to ignoring legal and ethical standards, but Illinois is still a democracy and its laws have meaning,” says Lynch.
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Service Employees International Union Illinois Council president Tom Balanoff was blunter, asserting that Rauner “knows this is not legal.”
It appears that the governor’s ultimate goal is to spark a legal battle, which he hopes will lead to an anti-labor intervention by the activist majority on the US Supreme Court.
No one doubts that Rauner will pursue that legal fight aggressively. As a Chicago Sun-Times column put it: “Governor Bruce Rauner fired his first shot Monday in his campaign to give all Illinois workers the right to choose to work for less money.”
Attacking unions makes sense for a man who once advocated for “no minimum wage.”
Unions are ardent supporters of living-wage initiatives and related efforts to improve pay for workers—whether they are members of labor organizations or not.
When unions are weakened, guarantees of fair wages are weakened.
Workers who are represented by unions have historically earned higher wages than workers who are not covered by labor contracts.
The strongest arguments that unions make for themselves are rooted in the statistics that reveal the fundamental difference between the circumstance of union members and non-union workers.
The US Bureau of Labor Statistics announced last month that “In 2014, among full-time wage and salary workers, union members had median usual weekly earnings of $970, while those who were not union members had median weekly earnings of $763.”
More than two hundred bucks a week counts for something, especially in an era when wage growth has so very frequently been so very slow.
The union advantage can be even greater in states with strong unions—for members and for non-members. That’s because, where unions are strong, employers must pay better wages to compete for the best workers.
Of course, there are distinctions to be made between private-sector and public-sector employment; union representation in the public sector is especially vital because of the protections that are provided for workers who blow the whistle on irresponsible practices and spending by managers, legislators and governors. “Without the protection of their union, nurses in public hospitals and clinics would be restricted from speaking out about unsafe hospital and clinic conditions, public servants who enforce public oversight and regulatory protections would be hamstrung in their ability to confront corporate attacks on safety standards, child welfare advocates would have less protection from retaliation for putting the interests of children first,” explained Martese Chism, a Chicago registered nurse and board member for National Nurses Organizing Committee-Illinois (National Nurses United).
But there is also a bottom-line contention when it comes to undermining the strength and flexibility of unions—no matter what the state, no matter what the sector. Attacks on labor organizations represent what Illinois Federation of Teachers President Dan Montgomery decries as “brazen, out-of-touch attacks on the middle class and the unions who give them a collective voice.”