GOP gubernatorial candidates differ on Right to Work

By Rod Thomson

Illinois News Network

Has the recent evolution of both Indiana and Michigan to Right-to-Work states under Republican gubernatorial administrations affected the views of the men running in the GOP primary to be Illinois’ next governor.

The answer: it’s unclear. An Illinois News Network survey of candidates finds that most seem to prefer not engaging on the issue of whether a worker can be compelled to join a union as a condition of taking or keeping a job.

Republican businessman Bruce Rauner takes the most defined stance, saying he supports the concept of Right to Work, but not a statewide change in law.

“What I’m a proponent of is allowing local governments in the state of Illinois — counties and municipalities — to decide for themselves whether to be Right to Work,” Rauner said. “For counties and municipalities that don’t want employee freedom, they can do that.”

Rauner said he does not think that his method, which could result in a patchwork of laws across the state, would create a problem for companies looking to expand in Illinois.

His opponents largely avoid the issue.

Illinois state Sen. Bill Brady, R-Bloomington, said the reality is that the Democrats control the General Assembly and therefore Right-to-Work proposals are irrelevant. He told an Illinois News Network reporter he was “wasting his breath” to pursue the questioning.

“The reality is that the Democrats aren’t likely to allow anything,” he said. Therefore, he said, his campaign “is not focused” on the issue right now.

Brady said if it were up to him, he would leave it up to individual shops, letting employees opt in or out.

Illinois State Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale, declined to be interviewed for this story, but did issue the following statement:

“While job creation is our top priority, the political realities of Illinois make Right-to-Work legislation counter-productive. There are other ways to create jobs and get the state’s economy moving, and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford was also adamant about not committing on the issue.

“I’m just not going to make that an issue,” he said. “The makeup of the General Assembly is not going to allow it to happen.”

Does he favor Right to Work in concept?

“I’m not going down any conceptual stuff because the point is it is not going to be any part of my term in office,” he said.

When pressed by the Illinois News Network on whether the moves of neighboring states to Right-to-Work status could be a problem for Illinois, Rutherford’s response was: “Illinois is not Michigan. Illinois is not Wisconsin. Illinois is not Indiana.”

Illinois Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn is opposed to any changes in the state’s union laws and criticized Indiana’s new law in a January 2012 interview with CBS Chicago. He called it a “bad bill” and said he was not concerned about companies leaving Illinois.

“That ain’t gonna happen, I’ll tell you that,” Quinn said, regarding companies leaving for Indiana.

In the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, unions contributed $14.5 million to candidates — $14.1 million of which went to Democrats.

Regardless of where the Illinois candidates stand on Right-to-Work legislation, it is clear Midwestern states are increasingly open to the concept.

Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin are instructive.

All three in recent years have adopted types of Right-to-Work legislation. Wisconsin’s law affects some government workers. The Indiana and Michigan measures encompass both public and private workforces.

Competitive pressure had a lot to do with the passage of labor reforms.

In addition to high taxes, one of the major knocks against Michigan was the sometimes crippling costs of companies that had to pay above-average union wages. Their workers had no choice in a unionized shop but to join the union and pay dues to remain employed. That damaged the state’s ability to compete with other states when attracting companies looking to expand.

In 2010, when the fight began for Right to Work in Michigan, the state was the only one in the nation losing population, and by a three-to-one margin people were leaving for Right-to-Work states, according to U.S. Census figures.

Republicans gaining majorities in both houses of the Michigan Legislature, as well as having a GOP office-holder in the governor’s mansion, cleared the way for Right-to-Work legislation to be considered in what was once perhaps the premier unionized state.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder was not originally seeking the law, because he thought the debate would be too divisive, said Vince Vernuccio, director of labor policy at the Mackinac Center. “He said he would sign a bill, but he did not really want the debate,” Vernuccio said.

But the unions created that debate on their own when they tried to put Proposal 2 on the ballot, which would have banned Right-to-Work laws from being passed. That proposal was defeated decisively and then Snyder decided it was time.

“Once the bills were introduced, he came out very strongly for it,” Vernuccio said. The governor’s strong support was critical to passage, but the momentum started in the Legislature, he said.

Iowa already is a Right-to-Work state and it now appears Missouri, with a Republican-controlled legislature, will put a Right-to-Work measure on the ballot for voters in 2014. Kentucky has right-to-work legislation introduced in its Legislature.

The changing dynamics of the Midwest toward Right-to-Work status may cause competitive problems for a state such as Illinois that is already struggling to compete for jobs.

Right-to-Work laws essentially make union participation and dues voluntary, and prohibit joining a union being a condition of employment. The laws make wages more competitive and unions less politically powerful. Twenty-three states now have Right-to-Work laws on the books.

Robert Bruno, a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois, is an opponent of Right-to-Work laws because he says they decrease unionization, which decreases pay and benefits for workers.

“It shifts the value of the employer-employee relationship to the employers,” said Bruno, who is also the director of the Labor Education Program in Chicago.

But proponents of Right-to-Work laws say the laws make states more economically competitive in a national and global environment.

“Businesses will continue to cold-shoulder Illinois, and especially if it keeps going the opposite direction with higher taxes and regulations,” said George Leef, director of research at the Pope Center, a North Carolina-based public policy think tank.

Leef, author of “Free Choice for Workers: A History of the Right to Work Movement,” explained that businesses consider a range of issues when deciding where to expand, and compulsory unionization is one of them. “If Illinois were to adopt a Right-to-Work statute, it would remove one of the negative assessments for establishing a business,” he said.

While Illinois remains a Democrat-dominated state, with its unions wielding enormous political power, it also faces financially unsustainable public pension programs, continually rising debt loads and higher taxes — all elements leading up to labor law changes in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Bruno says he does not see Illinois becoming a Right-to-Work state in the near future. But he added that there are economic pressures on the state and “I never thought we would see it in Michigan.”