From enemy to lesser evil?

Why did the Chicago Teachers Union House of Delegates vote overwhelmingly to endorse a labor-bashing Democratic governor for re-election? Lee Sustar reports.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (left) campaigning with running mate Paul Vallas (Christopher Dilts)Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn (left) campaigning with running mate Paul Vallas (Christopher Dilts)

IF ILLINIOS Gov. Pat Quinn makes his expected appearance at the Chicago Teachers Union's (CTU) annual political dinner on October 31, more than a few union members will likely gag on their corned beef.

Quinn, a one-time pro-labor reformer, has targeted public-sector unions by refusing to pay wage increases and pushing legislation that will dramatically slash pension payments--moves that would turn the stomach of any union activist. And along with those injuries comes a special Quinn insult to teachers in general and CTU members in particular: the choice of Paul Vallas, the union-bashing pioneer of school "reform" in Chicago in the 1990s.

But that didn't stop the governor from seeking the CTU's endorsement in his campaign for re-election.

If any Illinois union was likely to tell Quinn to get lost, it was the CTU. After all this was the union that defied another Democrat, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, to win a dramatic and popular strike just two years ago. Surely they would refuse to back Quinn and Vallas, who parlayed his attacks on the CTU and Chicago public education into a national career?

But Quinn calculated that no matter how hard he slammed organized labor, the unions would have no choice but to back him against his opponent, Bruce Rauner, a Republican billionaire hedge fund manager and charter school donor who has made union-bashing central to his campaign. The CTU, Quinn concluded, would back him even if his running mate was named Voldemort, let alone Vallas.

Turns out that Quinn was right. While some prominent members of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) spoke against an endorsement of Quinn at the union's House of Delegates meeting in September, the membership voted overwhelmingly to endorse the governor.

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WHILE MOST delegates may have cast their votes for Quinn with a distinct lack of enthusiasm, Quinn has used the support of the CTU and other unions to try and gain credibility as a populist, standing up for working people against Rauner's plans to slash taxes for business, cut spending on social programs and crush public sector unions.

Certainly Rauner's agenda is abhorrent to working people everywhere. "As an outsider, those government union bosses can't intimidate me," Rauner said last year in a typical anti-labor broadside. He plans to slash $1 billion in state spending, cutting $500 million in "efficiencies" in state spending and cutting another $250 million by verifying Medicaid eligibility--that is, depriving poor people of their health care.

Rauner even came out for reducing the state minimum wage until a barrage of criticism forced him to reverse course. But he now says that any increase would need to be pegged to tax cuts for business.

Rauner also backs "right to work" laws that would cripple unions' ability to bargain in the private sector and claims that public-sector unions have a "fundamental conflict of interest with the people of Illinois."

It's the kind of program you'd expect from a guy who made his billion dollars by taking over companies, slashing jobs and reselling them for big gains. Rauner has several multi-million dollar homes, including a $10 million co-op apartment overlooking Central Park in New York City, a downtown Chicago penthouse and ranches in Montana and Wyoming.

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WHEN COMPARED to an oligarch like Rauner, it shouldn't be too hard for his Democratic opponent to pose as a fighter for the little guy. And that's how Pat Quinn made his start in politics in the 1970s, campaigning against corruption and leading a fight that stopped state legislators from pocketing two years' pay on their first day in office. Later, he was behind a ballot referendum that cut the number of seats in the Illinois General Assembly.

Quinn was instrumental in founding Illinois' Citizens Utility Board, which monitors the big gas, electric and communications companies. Government watchdog groups credited Quinn with cleaning up the Cook County Board of Review, the body in charge of property tax appeals that is notoriously rife with kickbacks and bribes. His reputation as pro-consumer politician catapulted him to an election victory as state treasurer in 1990, despite the fact that a Republican won the governor's race that year.

Quinn parlayed his record into another statewide election win in 2002--this time as lieutenant governor, a do-nothing post that was then elected separately from the governor. Democratic machine politicians, who had long detested Quinn for exposing their shady practices, were aghast. But they took comfort in the fact that an Illinois lieutenant governor has zero political clout. Quinn faced no serious challenge to his re-election in 2006.

It was a different story for the governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who was dogged by corruption charges and who had sufficiently alienated his labor base that AFSCME Council 31 refused to endorse him. That fall, the Green Party candidate for governor, Rich Whitney, captured 10 percent of the vote, the biggest showing for a statewide third party in decades.

Then came the long corruption scandal that eventually booted Blagojevich from office in 2009. Suddenly, Quinn--popular with Illinois liberals but iced out by Democratic power brokers--had to run the state.

To do so, he relied on his supporters in organized labor and community organizations to put together a political network that withstood a tough Republican election challenge, holding onto the governor's seat in 2010. Early campaign contributions from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Illinois State Council helped Quinn scare off primary challenges. AFSCME Council 31 leaders, sore at Quinn for layoffs and other attacks, withheld an endorsement until Quinn cut a deal with the union that pulled back some of the cuts.

Labor--and the votes of working people generally--was critical to Quinn's election in 2010 by just 32,000 votes. Of the $24 million raised for Quinn's campaign, more than $11 million came from the unions. With the state Democratic establishment distrustful, if not hostile, towards the governor, Quinn was probably more dependent on unions than any other governor in the U.S.

Yet it didn't take long for Quinn to start bashing public-sector unions again. He refused to pay raises for 26,000 state employees, claiming the legislature hadn't funded them. He displaced 2,400 public employees through shutting prisons, health care facilities and other state offices--moves that got him booed off the stage at the Illinois state fair in 2012.

Then came Quinn's successful push for pension legislation that will take $160 billion away from retirees over the next 30 years by eliminating cost-of-living adjustments and raising the retirement age for workers currently under 45--a move that AFSCME is trying to block in the courts as a violation of the Illinois state constitution.

But when it came time for election endorsements, AFSCME got back into line behind Quinn. Having failed to back the Green Party and give it a needed boost years earlier, labor found itself with the proverbial nowhere-else-to-go at election time. AFSCME Council 31 delegates, despite the hammering it has taken from the governor, voted in mid-September to endorse him.

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WHAT EXPLAINS Quinn's attacks on labor? Personal ambition for a career after the governor's office might be factor--but he's not the sort politician that Fortune 500 companies typically pursue for plum corporate directorships.

The decisive factor is the Democratic Party's turn to the right nationally since the 1980s, which involves distancing the party from unions and carrying out pro-business policies. Since the economic crash of 2008, Democratic officeholders, from Obama on down, have been squeezing public spending, which inevitably hits public-sector unions.

At the federal level, the Obama administration, which spared no expense to bail out the banks, refused to make emergency, interest-free loans to the states to help them stem red ink. As a result, Quinn's attack on public-sector workers' pensions mirrors cuts carried out by Democratic governors in New York and California, though the economic recovery has moderated those attacks in California.

If these governors can continue to portray themselves as pro-union, it's because the actions of Republican governors--barring public-sector bargaining in Wisconsin and passing right-to-work legislation in Indiana--are aimed at crushing labor outright. And since Rauner promises to do the same thing in Illinois, Quinn has been able to corral the unions to support him--including the Chicago Teachers Union.

Some on the left contend that a union endorsement of--and union members' votes for--Quinn is simply a tactical question. The main aim is to stop Rauner, the argument goes. But a Rauner victory is highly unlikely to coincide with a Republican takeover of the state legislature, as happened in Wisconsin. If the billionaire does win, he'll find that he can't simply boss around the people of Illinois like workers in the companies he takes over.

Yet if Quinn wins, Rauner will have furthered his agenda--and that of big business--by driving the political debate to the right and helping Quinn to legitimize sweeping cuts in union pensions and other anti-labor policies. The unions, having backed Quinn for re-election twice despite his policies, shouldn't be surprised if Quinn hits them again in another term as governor--only even harder this time.

All this amounts to a missed opportunity for labor. The Green Party's success a few years ago signaled the possibility for a third-party challenge from labor that could challenge Illinois' corrupt political establishment. Instead, the unions have again opted for the lesser evil--only to lay the groundwork for more evil in the future.