By KERRY LESTER
SPRINGFIELD (AP) Illinois House Democrats Thursday voted down a right-to-work plan closely mirroring Gov. Bruce Rauner’s proposal to allow local governments to permit workers to opt out of unions, in an attempt to pressure the Republican governor in contentious budget negotiations.
The party that holds a veto-proof supermajority unanimously voted against the legislation that would allow local governments to establish ”employee empowerment zones” where it would be unlawful to require union membership at workplaces within those areas.
The zones, according to the bill, can apply to both private and public sector employee unions. It’s part of a set of pro-business reforms Rauner, a former private equity executive, wants passed in exchange for agreeing to new revenue to help close a $6 billion budget gap in the fiscal year starting in July.
The nearly two-hour debate included boos, jeers and emotional pleadings from both sides as Democrats praised the merits of unions and their importance to the middle class, while Republicans billed the vote as political grandstanding.
At one point, state Rep. Esther Golar of Chicago used her time on the floor to sing the African American spiritual, ”We shall not be moved,” to signify Democrats’ opposition to reducing the power of labor in the union-friendly state. Rauner campaigned on a theme of taking on ”government union bosses,” and has called for reducing spending on state employees’ salaries and benefits in the first months of his term.
Unions praised Democrats’ vote. ”The working men and women in Illinois have sent a clear message,” AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan said. ”Right to Work is wrong for Illinois.”
Twenty-five states have right-to-work laws including Illinois neighbors Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana. Aware that union-friendly Illinois is unlikely to agree to follow suit, Rauner has barnstormed the state calling for local areas to be allowed to opt out of unions. Local governments in some other unionized states such as Kentucky have tried that approach.
Thursday’s Illinois vote comes on the heels of a series of other votes and hearings designed by powerful Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan to embarrass the new Republican governor and send a clear signal that Democrats’ have muscle they intend to flex in Illinois’ newly divided government. Democrats lost the governor’s seat for the first time in more than a decade last November.
”The governor believes in right to work legislation, I believe differently,” state Rep. Jay Hoffman of Highland said, as he decried the governor’s focus on his pro-business agenda in the middle of a difficult budget year. ”Rome is burning and we are having to deal with these types of issues.”
Republicans, as they did in a vote on a portion of Rauner’s budget plan last week, once again objected to Democrats staging the symbolic vote, and with all but one member voted ”present” on the bills. The ”present” votes, in place of ”no” votes _ allowed Republicans to avoid taking a stand on the politically-sensitive issue.
”This isn’t about right to work,” Republican state Rep. Bill Mitchell, of Forsyth said. ”It’s about dividing people and it’s not fair.”
Only GOP state Rep. Raymond Poe of Springfield, the state capital where many unionized government workers live, voted against the plan.
Rauner, in a news conference prior to the vote, said he’d been encouraging Republicans to ”stay strong together” so that the party ”can have more influence in the (legislative) process.”
There are less than three weeks left until the Legislature’s scheduled May 31 adjournment date, also its deadline to pass a budget.
In recent weeks, bipartisan working groups have been meeting at the Capitol to negotiate both various aspects of Rauner’s proposals, meetings that Republicans have said are necessary part of ongoing negotiations and Democrats have decried as ”secret.”
Rauner, at a news conference at the state Capitol Thursday, called Thursday’s vote ”political theater” and expressed optimism both sides could reach compromise on both the budget, and his agenda.
”This is just part of the political process,” he said. ”We’re working together, we’ll get through it.”
The legislation is HB1286.