As unions continue to gain power in Illinois' public sector, they face their toughest battle yet for health care
by Bethany Jaeger
Technology and globalization changed the face of organized labor in Illinois. For 20 years, power has shifted from unions in the private sector to those in the public arena.
Flora Johnson represents the newest wave of collective action. She is a public employee represented by a union that's become the top political campaign donor of Illinois' two-term governor.
A home health aide, Johnson has cared for her son with cerebral palsy for 41 years and has been getting paid as his personal assistant for the past six. That's when she joined the Service Employees International Union Local 880 based in Chicago. She's now the local union president.
Yet Johnson and thousands of other union members working in health care lack health insurance, and they don't get paid if they take sick days.
She fights for her own and her members' health benefits at the state level because she's considered a public employee, one who contracts with the state to care for public aid patients.
At the same time SEIU members strive for health benefits, the union has become a force to be reckoned with as it joins Gov. Rod Blagojevich in an effort to expand health care for low- and middle-income workers statewide.
A Blagojevich supporter, Johnson's seat at the state's bargaining table is one of irony.
"We feel great that [the governor] wants to get health care for everyone, but that's not everyone when he excludes the home care workers,"
Johnson says. "That's why we're negotiating."
Illinois has long been a strong union state, bucking national trends through Democratic and Republican administrations. As union power shifts to workers in the public sector, it's only gotten stronger under the Blagojevich Administration. This governor has enacted numerous labor-friendly laws, and even though the union's charge for health care aligns with the governor's agenda, the public employee unions could face their most challenging agenda yet in seeking health care for all.
They've had little progress in federal health care reform, leaving them to fight at the state level. That's like waging a small battle in the middle of World War III. Illinois' political atmosphere is oppressed by an ongoing stalemate between the executive and legislative powers, particularly over the governor's health care initiatives. That means the power of unions has come to a head with politicians who oppose the governor but who also rose to power on union support. It doesn't help that Illinois also is a state that repeatedly fails to balance its budget and to prepare for increasing costs of retirees' health care, crushing confidence among lawmakers that the state can take on such a large expense as universal health care.
Unions in Illinois, however, beat the odds before and continue to reinforce their fleet. Nationwide, workers in the public sector had nearly five times the union membership than those in the private sector in 2006, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Labor. While national union membership rates have dropped from 20 percent of the labor force in 1983 to 12 percent in 2006, the percentage of Illinois workers represented by unions was about 17 percent in 2006.
There is power in numbers. Kent Redfield, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield, says unions are strongest where they have the most members, the most efficient mobilization and the most money.
Jay Shattuck, executive director of the Employment Law Council with the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, says he didn't know how much more organized Illinois labor unions could get.
"They've pretty much got the gambit. They have pushed the envelope as far as they can push it in Illinois in almost every single case, but I'm sure they'll come up with something."
The something likely is health care, which has topped Blagojevich's agenda since he took office in 2003. Public employee unions supported the governor's multiple controversial health care expansions while he enacted other labor-friendly quality-of-life issues.
In 2006, Blagojevich extended health benefits to same-sex partners of state employees, which the administration estimated could cost state government an extra $2.2 million. However, potential exists to reduce costs as well.
Just last year, unions succeeded in urging the legislature to raise Illinois' minimum wage to $7.50 an hour. Already higher than the national rate, Illinois' wage will increase by 25 cents a year until it reaches $8.25 in 2010. Employees who work 40 hours a week will make $17,160 a year, or just about the same as the 2007 federal poverty level for a family of three.
That combines with the fact that more Illinoisans are working such low-paying jobs. The state's economy has for 20 years shifted away from manufacturing and toward the lower-paying service sector, according to the most recent data from the 2007 State of Working Illinois, a series of workforce-related reports published by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability in Chicago and Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. The report indicates average wages in Illinois have decreased in the past seven years when adjusted for inflation. Those wages also must spread further as the cost of food, housing, health care and utilities continues to rise.
Workers who belong to a union, however, fare better in this state, earning $880 per week on average, compared with $770 per week for nonunion workers, according to the report. That's a 14.2 percent difference.
Business groups believe such progressive policies differentiate Illinois and contribute to an anti-business climate compared with other states, says Doug Whitley, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce for six years. He has been involved in Illinois politics for 30.
"We're in that kind of environment today. And as a result of the Blagojevich Administration, I think that will be one of the strongest messages. I think it will take the state some time to recover from the anti-business rhetoric and actions that have flown out of Springfield during this era."
Union influence in Illinois won't change any time soon, he says, "as long as the unions have a stranglehold on Democratic politics and that there is this symbiotic relationship between elected office and public employee unions."
Union leaders hope to preserve that political influence. In Illinois, that means befriending legislative leaders and executive officeholders, all of whom are Democrats.
Larry Spivack, regional director of Illinois Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and president of the Illinois Labor History Society in Chicago, says the Democratic Party's ideology tends to align with the union's objectives of worker rights, social control, health safety and economics for the middle class.
The power of rank-and-file workers in the public sector has grown partly because employees elect their bosses at all levels of government, he says. "It's a little bit easier to put pressure on the boss, and there's also more democratic control over the process. Shareholders have very little say over what corporations do."
Spivack labels the business community's argument against raising the minimum wage as classic ideology.
"The question is, does it drive business away, or do you want to have a higher quality of life? And I think it's the second question, a higher quality of life. We'll continue to argue this because business is in the business of making a profit, and we believe that profit should be shared by people who make them the profit."
When business and labor interests are pitted against each other, politicians often are split down the middle. That's where the unions' lobbying power comes into play.
AFSCME is one of the largest, most politically involved unions in the country, representing more than 1 million public employees, including more than 100,000 workers and retirees in Illinois. Ninety percent of the union's political campaign contributions went to Democrats between 1993 and 2006, according to Redfield's campaign contribution records called the Sunshine Database.
But AFSCME, the traditional union for state employees for more than three decades, is in a turf war of sorts with rising political power SEIU.
Keith Kelleher, head organizer for SEIU Local 880, says the local exemplifies the grass-roots movement to represent public employees. It started with 200 organized workers in 1983 and now represents more than 72,000 members in Illinois and some in Indiana.
"The autoworkers' jobs, the steel-workers' jobs, all those jobs are gone. We need to make the new jobs, the service-sector jobs, to be the new, middle-class jobs," Kelleher says.
Better-quality services require more money for training, education and increased wages and benefits, which the union urges through mailings, phone calls and one-on-one meetings with politicians. They also donate to political campaigns.
Records show SEIU is one of Blagojevich's largest campaign donors, giving $1.8 million in his political career.
"SEIU is the new kid," Redfield says. "They've gone up tremendously. And they're an in-betweener."
By that, he means SEIU is not a union solely for public or private employees. It represents health care workers in hospitals, nursing homes and home care, as well as janitors and security officers. Some are considered public employees because they work for state-funded programs to provide home care for seniors and people with disabilities.
Their visibility increases with their political power.
Johnson of SEIU joined hundreds of health care workers dressed in purple T-shirts last year when they repeatedly stormed the state Capitol to increase hourly wages for home health workers. They pushed for a $64.2 million deal that would bring them even with minimum wage and was designed to help their employers provide health benefits.
"Health care is our priority because we have no health care," Johnson says. "That's a very scary place to be. With the work I do, taking care of my son, if I get sick, then I have to go to a county hospital because I don't have health care."
The measure will be enacted July 1.
Kelleher says the higher wages and potential health benefits for home health workers is a "sign of things to come," but the benefits granted by the state also are subject to stiff negotiations.
In late December, Johnson again sat at the negotiating table across from officials of the state's personnel and procurement agency, Central Management Services. She says the administration's response repeatedly is, "We have no money." She fights back. "Until they can give us a satisfactory answer, we still negotiate."
Spivack, AFSCME Council 31's regional director, says he would rather not deal with health care benefits of public employees at the state level at all. Instead, he says such negotiations would be better handled at the federal level.
"It's a distraction. It gets in the way, and it obfuscates the issues in front of us that we'd like to deal with," including wages and staffing levels. "If every citizen has health care as a basic right, which they do virtually everywhere else in the world, then when we bargain for employees, we wouldn't be spending our time talking about how much somebody has to pay or not pay for health care."
But the state is under pressure to model benefits after those offered in the private sector, one proposed way to better balance a massive $53 billion state budget.
According to the state comptroller's records, Illinois paid nearly $3.9 billion in payroll, or "personal services," in fiscal year 2007. That doesn't include higher education or retirement or Social Security benefits for more than 72,300 employees. But the cost of payroll is $1 billion less than during the previous administration of Gov. George Ryan, who had about 14,000 more employees.
Despite the Blagojevich Administration's smaller head count, group health insurance costs drastically increased to $1.3 billion in fiscal year 2007, compared with $876 million in fiscal year '02.
Johnson resolves to stay patient when her quest for health benefits is denied because of budget constraints. While workers earn a higher minimum wage today than when she started, they'll still fight for health care because it's not written that those same workers won't get sick, she says.
"I love this movement because it is helping people. We are not just out here showing these purple shirts. We are out here for a reason. We have a mission," she says. "Purple shirts do mean a lot. When they see us coming, they know we're about business."
Issues, February 2008
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