Editorial: Rauner right to rip AFSCME strike threat

The Daily Herald Editorial Board
Updated 2/24/2017 4:05 PM
  • As the Illinois government grapples with a deepening economic crisis, members of the state's largest employee union have voted to permit a strike.

    As the Illinois government grapples with a deepening economic crisis, members of the state's largest employee union have voted to permit a strike. Associated Press File Photo

If Gov. Bruce Rauner were balking at a contract agreement solely for the purpose of breaking Illinois' largest union, we might have some reason to pause over the announcement Thursday that members of AFSCME Council 31 have voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike.

But here are some of the outrages that AFSCME's leadership won't accept: a provision allowing raises based on merit rather than simple longevity, maintaining a 37.5-hour workweek but payment of overtime after 40 hours instead of the current 37.5, 100 percent state subsidy of Bronze-level health care coverage with options for employees to keep their current Platinum coverage, or accept Gold or Silver, if they want to pay the difference, continued payment of 100 percent of retirees' Platinum health care coverage after 20 years service,

These are hardly sweatshop conditions.

Under the best of economic circumstances, the contract demands from AFSCME, whose members are among the highest paid in the country, would be suspect. But these, of course, are not even remotely the best of circumstances for the state of Illinois.

To his credit, Gov. Rauner has stood fast for two years on insistence that state employee wages and benefits be brought in line with what a crippled state can afford -- and with what most private-sector workers in Illinois receive.

But AFSCME has stuck to a strategy that essentially would rely on the state's taxpayers to make up the $3 billion difference between its demands and those of the governor. The union leaders tout their willingness to accept a four-year freeze in wages, but say that doesn't apply to step increases that account for substantial pay boosts. They flatly refuse to talk about actually paying more to people who demonstrate greater skill and productivity in their jobs.

Blame is the political shuttlecock in this dispute, and both sides seek to portray themselves as the compromiser and the other as the obstructer. Emphasizing that they prefer not to strike, AFSCME leaders say all they really want is for the governor to return to the bargaining table. But the fact is, neither side's position has changed markedly, and neither side has indicated any willingness to move.

Two years and numerous court and labor board appearances into this process, taxpayers should be weary of the political devices. There are just two issues now: How well-compensated are state employers and how well will they continue to be compensated? And how financially strapped is the state?

To be sure, the governor ought not try to pull the state out of its financial crisis on the backs of state employees, but at the same time state employees ought to have realistic expectations about what the state can afford.

The governor's proposals do not do the former, and as for the latter, if AFSCME workers really think a work stoppage will force water from the stone of the state budget, we suspect they will learn differently. And we can't imagine that the hardworking taxpayers of Illinois, most of whom can barely dream of wages and benefits like state employees already enjoy, will stand with them.

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