By CARL GREEN
Will Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner try to sneak right-to-work past the Democratic-dominated legislature by appealing to hard-scrabble local communities that just want to have enterprise zones?
Could be. He was in Decatur on Jan. 27 promoting his version of economic development, which includes local right-to-work policies and could undermine prevailing wage laws that keep employers from pitting groups of workers against each other. He called implementing such plans a top priority for his administration.
Rauner could be confusing before the election, at one time promoting the “right-to-work zones” concept to allow workers to decline to pay union dues, and at other times insisting that attacks on labor unions were not a priority for him, considering the many other problems the state faces.
He was a little hard to pin down, but the Decatur appearance made it clear – attacking unions is his priority.
In interviews during the campaign, he described his idea of enterprise zones as places with reduced business taxes and regulations, including letting local governments approve right-to-work schemes. Union spokesmen replied that it would just pit communities against each other in destructive bidding wars, leaving workers as the fall guys.
At the Decatur appearance, Rauner claimed that states that are growing “don’t force unionization,” but he failed to mention how those states also have lower wages and benefits and questionable working conditions.
Enterprise zones are nothing new in Illinois. They just haven’t been such outright attacks on unionism before, instead offering incentives such as sales tax exemptions on purchases of manufacturing equipment.
Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, fired back at Rauner’s plan. “Making Illinois a right-to-work state in any form is a terrible idea,” he said, adding that responsible job creation, “is the key to rebuilding our economy, not selling out working families to the lowest bidder.”
Rauner also attacked one of the most effective ways to get projects completed and under cost estimates while using well-trained labor – the project labor agreement (PLA), in which regional groups like the Southwestern Illinois Building & Trades Construction Council work with contractors to provide the most effective and efficient combinations of workers to get jobs done right.
Rauner repeated claims by a non-union manufacturers’ group that PLAs typically add 18 percent to the cost of projects. So he’s against them.
That rankles Dale Stewart, financial secretary-treasurer of the council, whose job it is to put the packages of workers together.
He cites results such as recent PLAs used in the improvements to Mississippi River levees in which 11 contracts valued at $160 million all came in under engineers’ cost estimates.
Rauner’s claim is “totally false,” Stewart said. “The wages are the same,” he said. “Where is that 18 percent coming from? It’s not labor, because we still get the same amount of money.”
If contractors want to reduce personnel costs, they can tap into unions’ apprenticeship programs, which allow first-year and second-year trainees to work for reduced amount, he said.
Stewart is concerned how Rauner’s zones plan could affect prevailing wage laws, which prevent destructive bidding wars.
“The question is, can he supersede state laws enforcing prevailing wages?” he said. “The only way you can break the union is to divide and conquer.”
He suspects that the proposal is really a strategy to reduce Democrats’ dominance in the Legislature by destroying the party’s strongest support group – unions.
“They want to turn it from blue to red,” he said. “He doesn’t want to just reduce your power, he wants to kick you right off the map.”
Unionists who opposed former Gov. Pat Quinn over lesser issues could someday find themselves without unions entirely, he added.
After Rauner’s appearance, Carrigan issued a statement saying the ever-shifting Rauner showed his true colors in Decatur.
“The Bruce Rauner who managed to mask his true feelings about working families for most of last year showed his true agenda today,” Carrigan said. “Much like his past proposal to cut the minimum wage, he is now going after workers on all fronts by supporting right-to-work, attacking unemployment insurance and workers compensation, as well as prevailing wage and project labor agreements that benefit both workers and the taxpayers.”
NO RTW BENEFIT
“A recent University of Illinois study points out that the net economic benefit of right-to-work in Illinois is negligible,” Carrigan added. “The study points out that right-to-work seriously erodes wages, benefits and compounds racial and gender wage inequality. Right-to-work will drop wages in Illinois between 5.7 to 7.3 percent.
“Prosperous economies are driven by good wages and a thriving middle class. Rauner’s proposals are not economic development, but middle-class eradication.
“We suspected all along that Bruce Rauner would go back to his roots as a mega-wealthy corporate CEO and force the tired philosophy of increasing the bottom line on the backs of the workers. I haven’t seen any proposals from him on increasing Illinois' low corporate income tax or closing big business loopholes. Where is his shared sacrifice?
“His attack on the middle-class will be vigorously opposed by organized labor and community allies. He’s going to have to come up with something better than failed right-wing economic policy.”