The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why public-sector unions lost big in Illinois

This year's election results have public sector unions bracing for a political climate that's increasingly hostile toward organized labor.

Greg Johnson, president of AFSCME local 46, worries that younger generations don’t understand the value unions have created over the years. (Lydia DePillis/The Washington Post)

EAST MOLINE, Ill. — A week after the midterm election, Gregg Johnson heaved himself into a chair around a rickety table in a shopfront union hall here and lamented the state of public-sector unions in America.

“Tough week,” said Johnson, who had just retired from three decades working in the supply room of a local prison, where he serves as president of the American Federation of State and Municipal Employees local chapter. His state, after all, had just elected Bruce Rauner –a multimillionaire investor who campaigned on the idea that “government union bosses” were sucking the state dry with their salaries and pensions –as its next governor.

“I just left the facility today, and they’re all worried we’re going to close within the next few months,” said Johnson. His $60,000-per-year pension seems safe, but he doesn’t feel he can assure the next generation of workers anything close to that level of security. “I can’t really put their minds at ease.”

Public-sector unions this fall pulled out all the stops to defeat Rauner in his race against incumbent Gov. Pat Quinn (D), with hopes of avoiding life under a Republican who questioned whether they should have collective bargaining rights at all. But they failed in Illinois, and four of the other five states where they waged a battle to defeat GOP gubernatorial candidates hostile to their cause.

Now, public-sector unions are bracing for more attacks by ascendant GOP governors and undergoing a period of soul-searching to figure out why they have lost so much public support — and how to get it back.

“Illinois is the last line of defense in this battle,” Johnson says. “It seems like every single governor who eliminated or tried to eliminate collective bargaining was either elected or reelected, and it’s alarming to us as a labor movement, because when I say we’re the last line of defense, I think we’re the last line of defense for the middle class too.”

Freshest in Johnson’s mind is Wisconsin, where he had traveled to join protests against Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s choice to essentially end collective bargaining for state employees. The voting public seemed not to care: Walker was voted in again, for the third time in four years.

The same thing happened in Michigan, where unions failed to defeat Gov. Rick Snyder, who signed a right-to-work law; in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage had tried hard to do the same; and in Florida, where unions had sued governor Rick Scott over a plan to shift part of their salaries into their pensions and cut the state’s contribution. Millions of dollars spent on TV ads and mailers, thousands of phone calls, and months of doorknocking weren’t enough to convince voters that what’s bad for unions is bad for them too.

Partly, that’s because the average voter doesn’t have what a union member has anymore, especially one working in government. Public-sector unions have actually remained much stronger over the years than their counterparts in private industry — 35.3 percent of government employees were union members in 2013, compared to 6.7 percent of workers in private industry (in Illinois, union density among state and local employees is among the highest in the nation).

While they haven’t been immune from layoffs, it’s allowed them to maintain relatively healthy salary and benefit packages at a time when wages have stagnated for everyone else, and their retirements are far from secure. But as the burden of pension obligations has ballooned, politicians are casting about for ways to cut budgets without raising taxes during a still-fragile recovery. Lately, their own employees are the most convenient targets.

As unions have waned elsewhere, Illinois’s Quad Cities — which includes Moline, East Moline, Rock Island and Davenport, over the Iowa border — has historically been a labor bastion. Thousands of United Auto Workers members made up its middle class, working for industrial equipment manufacturers like John Deere and International Harvester.

Gradually, many of those companies found it cheaper to produce equipment overseas. But as manufacturing disappeared, unions began organizing the cities’ prisons, schools, police stations and hospitals, after Illinois legalized collective bargaining for public employees in 1973.

Ten years after that, Johnson started as a prison guard in the East Moline Correctional Center. Since the union started collectively bargaining, pay has risen. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean correctional officer in Illinois made $61,660 in 2013, up from $48,423 inflation-adjusted dollars in 1998, the last year for which figures are available. The mean salary for correctional officers across the country is only $44,220; Illinois has banned private prisons, where staff tend to make less than their public counterparts.

According to Johnson, improving the payscale helped professionalize the workforce and decrease turnover. The union was able to help with training programs and safety measures, turning the job into something that people didn’t just take as a last resort.

Over the years, the inmate population at East Moline has increased, with more inmates housed in each cell. It’s also dealing with more mentally ill prisoners, because of the closure of several mental health facilities. Johnson maintains the prison is understaffed and has tried to push for higher staffing levels — which means more jobs for members — on the grounds of health and safety. The Department of Corrections says that higher staff to inmate ratios don’t make a prison less safe, that no serious assaults have occurred at East Moline for the past 10 years, and that the number of serious assaults in the prison system overall has declined markedly over the last three years.

“Any claims like that are utterly false, and I think it’s a shameful scare tactic,” says spokesman Tom Shaer.

Johnson’s fight with the Department of the Corrections isn’t the only one unions have had with Gov. Pat Quinn, who said during the campaign that the state’s fiscal position made it his responsibility to “drive a hard bargain” with the state’s employees.

Quinn tried to cancel raises that AFSCME had agreed to defer to help save the state money, and closed prisons and public health facilities that he said were underutilized. Faced with nearly $100 billion in unfunded pension liability caused by previous administrations that opted to skip contributing to pension funds, Quinn proposed a pension-cutting plan that’s currently being decided by the Illinois Supreme Court. All that added up to a deep antipathy toward Quinn that many union members found difficult to overcome, even with Rauner as a frightening alternative.

“When you’re constantly having to fight the guy you endorsed and helped elect, it’s hard to think about how to hold you members to a Democratic vote,” says Bob Bruno, director of the University of Illinois’ Labor Education Program.  “It may have been that they actually just knew too much, and what they knew they didn’t like.”

That’s one of the biggest problems public sector unions face across the country: Even Democrats in states that are historical friendly to labor have supported pension cuts. California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure in 2012 that curtailed payouts for new hires and raised the retirement age, for example, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo did the same, angering white collar state employees to the point where they endorsed his opponent in this year’s primary.

Meanwhile, politicians have also driven a wedge between public sector unions and another of their natural allies: Private-sector unions. While cutting the pensions of AFSCME members, Quinn kept the building trades unions happy by supporting capital projects — in the Quad Cities, for example, new facilities at the University of Western Illinois have created many jobs for construction workers. They, in turn, have not been vocal in supporting the public employees in their fight to preserve pensions (Although the Laborers International Union of North America joined the coalition opposing cuts, the electricians, carpenters, pipe trades, and operating engineers are conspicuously absent).

“We go around and talk about how a hit to one is a hit to all, but I don’t think most labor leaders really practice that,” Johnson says. “You shouldn’t be asking me to give up what we’ve negotiated. We should be figuring out how to get this back for you. It’s a real problem, and I don’t know how to bridge that gap.”

Despite their dislike of Quinn, public employee unions still fought hard against Rauner. AFSCME donated nothing directly to the incumbent governor, but gave $2.3 million to the Illinois Freedom PAC, which helped flood the airwaves with anti-Rauner ads. It paled in comparison, however, to the $26.1 million of his own money that Rauner put into his campaign — the Republican ended up with a two-to-one funding advantage in a race that shattered previous spending records.

In the end, unions took some solace in the idea that, perhaps, the general public didn’t actually buy into Rauner’s rhetoric on government employees so much as his promise to “shake up Springfield.” Turnout was very low, and Rauner’s positions were vague enough to be more appealing than what voters had already seen of Quinn.

“It wasn’t so much all of the people of Illinois, it was certain people who came out to vote,” says the Quad Cities’ state Rep. Mike Smiddy, a former prison employee himself, who had just survived a brutal reelection battle despite outside political action committees spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to defeat him. “I think the way the campaigns were run this time, and the complete negative tone of everything, turned a lot of people off.”

The coming Rauner administration is a terrifying prospect for state employees. He has said government unions were an inherent “conflict of interest,” and “at the core of our spending problem in Illinois.” Although a University of Illinois analysis found that the state’s government workers have lower salaries than those in the private sector when accounting for education level, government workers across the United States are still some of the only people who still have defined benefit pension programs at all — 67 percent, compared to 13 percent of non-union private-sector workers. Rauner has said he would transition the state’s employees to 401k plans as well, in order to bring government’s benefits more in line with the public’s.

But he won’t be able to get much done on that agenda in the near term — never mind more drastic priorities, like a Scott Walker-style destruction of collective bargaining. Democrats still enjoy supermajorities in both the senate and the house, and though they’re not all union friends, they certainly won’t be a Rauner rubber stamp.

“He was labor’s worst nightmare back in the spring, but he’s severely constrained as to what he can do,” says Kent Redfield, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Illinois-Springfield. “If the wheels come off, yes, we could have a total disaster. But I don’t think we’re going to look like Wisconsin.”

Long term, they still have a problem — Gregg Johnson sees it in some of his younger former colleagues, who he says didn’t seem all that interested in working hard to keep Rauner out.

“If they were more active over the last 10 years, maybe we wouldn’t be in the situation we are now,” he says. “Our employees have always taken for granted what we’ve got. And I don’t think they realize the lives that have been lost, and I don’t think they show enough respect for what those who went before us did to get us where we are. ”

What could ultimately change that trajectory? Johnson sighs heavily, and thinks for a second.

“God,” he says. “Education, education, education.” Many union members have tried to shield their families from the hard lives they’ve led, trying to set their kids on a better course. That has to stop, he thinks.

“I have a 3-year-old daughter,” he says. “She is going to know every single thing about labor. She is going to know who Mother Jones was. She’s going to know who Lane Evans was. She’s going to learn early on how labor and social activism, they go hand in hand.” Not everybody’s going to do that, though, so maybe there should be labor history classes in schools, he muses.

“I wish we could send an army of people in to teach people what took place. We need to spread the word somehow, and I don’t know how to spread the word without starting young,” he says. “I feel like I’ve failed.”