Director says Rauner 'trying to destroy unions' as tollway drops agreement

Contractors can hire any workers for future building projects

Illinois tollway directors voted Thursday to eliminate a 21-year agreement requiring contractors to hire collective bargaining units, reflecting Gov. Bruce Rauner's push to reduce union influence in the state.

“The governor believes the tollway made the correct decision which will save tollway users money,” Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said.

Tollway Director James Sweeney, vice president of the International Union of Operating Engineers, was one of three directors who voted against the policy change. He warned the move could have dire consequences and slow the tollway's massive rebuilding program if strikes occur.

“To eliminate this would be disastrous,” Sweeney said, crediting the switch to “the governor's obsession with hatred of unions. He's trying to destroy the labor movement in this state.”

Rauner at a March appearance in Elgin said the notion he was anti-union was “horse manure.”

The tollway's hope is to expand opportunities to more small businesses and increase minority hiring, Chair Paula Wolff said.

Tollway Director and Chicago Heights Mayor David Gonzalez said “this will open it up for a lot more businesses to do work at the tollway.”

But Director and Aurora Mayor Tom Weisner countered, “I've seen what happens when unexpected delays happen to projects. The inconvenience is huge.”

In January 1994, the tollway instituted a multi-project labor agreement requiring that collective bargaining agreements be applied to all tollway projects.

With a vote of 6-3 Thursday, the board rescinded that, effective May 1. The change will affect future contracts, not existing ones.

The tollway is in the midst of a massive $12 billion building program with work on the Jane Addams (I-90) and Elgin-O'Hare Expressway (Route 390) going on simultaneously.

Sweeney recalled a construction strike in summer 2010 involving a number of building trades unions. Tollway work continued because of the multi-project labor agreement, he said, noting workers were bound to cross picket lines.

The strike delayed about 300 Illinois Department of Transportation projects and myriad local improvements ranging from Naperville Central High School to Batavia High School.

Tollway administrators said the change didn't mean the agency wouldn't be hiring unions, but their actions did reflect the governor's comments and discussions with his staff.

“They've pointed to the public comments that he's made, so it's something that all of the board members are aware of,” Executive Director Kristi Lafleur said.

Rauner has sought to allow state workers who are nonunion members to opt out of union dues. He supports giving local governments say over creating “right to work” zones allowing people to choose not to join unions.

The effort is part of his “turnaround” agenda to fix the state's massive debt. “I never advocated that the entire state of Illinois go to right-to-work, but we also have to compete,” Rauner said March 6.

Weisner said the previous tollway policy gave it security that one small local putting up a picket line would not delay projects for months. “To have that assurance is worth a lot,” he said.

Director Terrence D'Arcy of Shorewood argued that not using unions would result in unskilled laborers working on projects where expertise is essential for safety and efficiency.

But Director Jeff Redick of Elmhurst noted, “I recognize and appreciate the quality of work and training union employees have. I also recognize our staff is diligent in vetting people to make sure they're responsible and responsive.”

The tollway board is appointed by the governor. Weiser, whose term expires in May, doesn't expect to be reappointed.

“My guess is he (Rauner) may want someone more aligned with his philosophy,” he said. “It's been a great life experience.”

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