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Union Membership Surges Among Illinois State Employees

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Getty/Frank Polich

Getty/Frank Polich

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) - It’s getting lonely at the top of Illinois state government.

In the past eight years, more than 10,000 state employees have joined unions, a four-fold increase over the previous eight years, according to records analyzed by The Associated Press. If pending requests are approved by the Illinois Labor Relations Board, nearly 97 percent of state workers would be represented by unions - including many employees once considered management. Only 1,700 “bosses” would be left out of nearly 50,000 state employees.

While Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states move to throttle the influence of state employee unions, the surge in Illinois’ union membership worries even traditionally union-friendly Democrats, who fear it could harm the effective management of government.

It has put them in the awkward position of trying to smother union growth even as they criticize GOP curbs elsewhere. Gov. Pat Quinn’s office is pressing a key union to give up several thousand new members. If negotiations fail, Democratic lawmakers will likely resurrect proposed legislation to limit union-eligible jobs and rescind union coverage for thousands of people.

Quinn said earlier this month that Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker “should be ashamed of himself” for pushing through a new law that rolls back state workers’ right to collective bargaining. But Quinn’s effort to scale back union growth is “incongruous” with his and other Democrats’ statements on Wisconsin, said Anders Lindall, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

A Quinn aide said there’s no contradiction between the governor’s two positions.

“We strongly support union representation and collective bargaining for many state workers, but the union system only works when there are workers and managers,” spokeswoman Annie Thompson said. “Without this bill, we are looking at a situation where there is virtually no management at a variety of agencies and facilities.”

Without managers, critics of the union growth maintain, who will stay late to get a project done? Will a boss take proper disciplinary steps against an underling if the two belong to the same union? If a union member is given confidential information, is his first loyalty to the governor or the union?

Pending requests to unionize have come from employees whose jobs traditionally fell into the category of “boss:” prison wardens and their assistants, state agencies’ chief fiscal officers, deputy agency directors, chiefs of staff, senior personnel officers and liaisons to the Legislature at social service, employment and regulatory agencies, according to the AP analysis of Labor Relations Board records.

Since 2003, when Gov. Rod Blagojevich took office, about 10,100 state employees under Quinn’s control have joined unions - 75 percent of them lining up with AFSCME, records show. That’s more than four times the 2,200 who joined from 1995 to 2003. The earlier period coincides with a widespread change in job titles, which slowed organizing while authorities sorted out who was eligible, Lindall said. But a bigger reason for the recent surge, he added, was the way Blagojevich dealt with state employees.

The former governor, who was impeached and faces a retrial on corruption charges next month, froze wages of non-union management employees for years, trying to hold down costs. While the Democrat signed a law making it easier to organize a union, he was vocal in criticizing state workers and bureaucracy.

Meanwhile, budget cuts caused a sharp reduction in the workforce. State records show there were about 67,000 employees reporting to the governor when Blagojevich took office, compared to 49,967 in February, according to the Department of Central Management Services.

“People were treated very shabbily by the Blagojevich administration,” Lindall said. “They wanted to join the union for protections in the workplace but also to have a voice and win respect on the job.”

The more union representation grows, the more it absorbs jobs that lawmakers traditionally considered management. Currently, the Labor Relations Board is considering 31 applications seeking unionization for more than 1,100 employees. That would bump up the number of unionized state employees to 96.5 percent from 94.3 percent, according to an analysis of CMS numbers. In Wisconsin, about 60 percent of the state’s employees are unionized.

“I don’t believe labor was ever intended to save the whole workforce,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Flynn Currie, a Chicago Democrat who sponsored the legislation to roll back the union membership. “Always, there was the idea that there is management, there is a place where the policy is set, where the buck stops.”

Currie’s legislation, which would redefine who’s eligible for unionization, died in a lame-duck legislative session in January. But, pending the results of Quinn’s negotiations with AFSCME, lawmakers are prepared to re-introduce a slimmed-down version of Currie’s bill.

The new proposal would rule out unionization for top-level policymaking employees - those who offer “meaningful input into government decision-making.” It also would rescind collective bargaining rights for those types of employees allowed to join unions since December 2008. The board has approved unionization for more than 4,300 workers since then.

Drawing the line between boss and union worker often depends on point of view, said Robert Bruno, director of the labor education program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“I don’t think you can find anybody who can give you a non-ideological answer to that,” Bruno said. “When they give you an answer, they’re going to be making a statement of whether they think collective bargaining’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

But Currie argues that a manager who’s in a union could have divided loyalties that might affect important policy decisions. She noted a number of potential problems if the pending applications are approved.

“In the Department on Aging, there would be one person besides the director who is not part of a collective bargaining unit,” she said. “I don’t know how you run a correctional facility if all the assistant wardens are part of the bargaining unit.”

Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press

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