Illinois Labor Flexes New Political Muscle

By: - December 6, 2002 12:00 am

The last time Illinois had a Democratic governor and Democrats ran the state legislature, Gerald Ford was in the White House and the Land of Lincoln was led by a maverick, one-term, Democratic governor named Dan Walker.

On Walker’s watch, organized labor reaped a bonanza. The state dramatically revamped its workers compensation program to give injured workers quicker payment and broader services , and beefed up unemployment insurance benefits at the expense of business.

While statehouses across the nation turned more Republican this year, Illinois went solidly Democratic. For the first time since the mid-1970s, the party took control of the governor’s office. It also ended 10 years of Republican rule over the state Senate and padded its majority in the House.

This gives organized labor its best shot since the days of Walker at moving its agenda through the Statehouse. Business interests, who sided with Republicans, are preparing to get gored and looking toward the heavens for political salvation.

“I do recognize in the Senate that labor has been shut out, and I intend to bring them back in,” pledged Sen. Emil Jones (D-Chicago), an ally of labor who is poised to become Senate president next month.

Democrat Rod Blagojevich will become the state’s 40th governor in January after running on a pro-union platform. The labor movement registered thousands of new voters and pumped millions of dollars into the campaign funds of Blagojevich and the party’s legislative team last fall. Now Big Labor is awaiting thank-yous from Blagojevich and his Democratic legislative majorities .

The unions want Democrats to deliver on their campaign pledges to hike the state minimum wage from .15 an hour , ensure equal pay for men and women who perform the same work, provide paid family leave benefits for the first time, restructure workers compensation, rescue the state’s depleted unemployment insurance trust fund and close corporate tax breaks.

Taxpayers could be on the hook for million in Blagojevich promises to reopen prisons and work camps, mental health institutions and other state facilities that have been shut down or are about to close as part of outgoing Gov. George Ryan’s budget belt-tightening.

To take those steps might require a tax increase, a violation of Blagojevich’s most significant campaign pledge.

“He has made a lot of pledges,” says Henry Bayer, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31. “I think it’s a good idea not to break any pledges you make, and perhaps he can find a way to keep all of his promises.”

At the same time, labor leaders don’t want to let their pent-up demand for union-friendly advances boomerang and create the same backlash that Illinois Republicans felt in the mid-1990s. Then, the GOP-led legislature jammed through caps on lawsuit awards and threatened to ban political donations from unions and make Illinois a right-to-work state.

The anti-union agenda energized labor, which retook the House in 1996 and ended the GOP’s two-year flirtation with absolute power.

“I think this is a great opportunity for us,” says Margaret Blackshere, president of the 1-million member Illinois AFL-CIO and a co-chairman of Blagojevich’s transition team. “What we have to be careful of is sensitivity and not being greedy. We’ll be cautious, persistent, and we won’t seek to punish the business community.”

Greg Baise, president of the Illinois Manufacturers Association, hopes Blackshere and Blagojevich are good to their word. But his largely Republican group and other pro-business organizations are helpless to stop any of labor’s political dictates. Ask Baise what his group’s best line of defense is against the possible onslaught, and he has a two-word answer: “Really, prayer.”

“It will be incumbent upon the Blagojevich administration to balance the wish list of many in organized labor against the impact it’ll have on the business community,” Baise said. “In 2002, manufacturing employment fell below 900,000 employees for the first time since World War II.”

“The message from that is that manufacturers aren’t expanding in Illinois. They’re looking for other places to do business. It’ll be important for the new governor to know that making it more difficult for businesses to compete, with more regulatory or tax burdens, may expedite that loss.”

Blagojevich has strived not to come across as anti-business, supporting a massive expansion of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, which has been on business’ agenda for years. But it’s readily apparent where the new governor’s main loyalties lie.

“Unions have been shut out to a great degree by political leadership that didn’t always put the needs of working families first. I don’t think they’re to be blamed for wanting finally to have representation within the executive branch that speaks to issues that are important to them,” Blagojevich spokesman Billy Weinberg said.

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