Don't count out Illinois public employee unions just yet

Widespread speculation predicts that the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in  Janus v. AFSCME will change America's political landscape, especially in Illinois, the bluest of blue states where public employee unions have driven the state into near bankruptcy.

By giving employees in such unions as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Council 31 in Illinois (AFSCME) and the Chicago Teachers Union the option to end their union membership without losing benefits, the air is full of predictions that Chicago, Cook County and Illinois public employees will flee their unions in droves. That it will deeply cut into the unions' campaign contributions to Democrats, especially to House Speaker Michael Madigan, whose hand is on the throttle of the state's financial demise. And that, in turn,  will  loosen Madigan's lock on the distribution of campaign contributions to Illinois Democratic  legislative candidates. And that will lead to more independent thinking by Democrats, who won't have to depend on Madigan's goodness and kindness to get elected.

Ha and ha.

Do  you actually think that organized labor in Chicago and Illinois will lie down in the face of this threat?

Significant numbers of public employees got their jobs through clout or political work. How many is anyone's guess, but it is a significant number who owe their jobs to working the precincts, being someone's brother-in-law or working for a private contractor who owes his business to the political machine. Their jobs are their rewards. And pulling out of the union will be an invitation to get--in Chicago lingo for fired--viced. Anyone who doesn't think this is a major factor that will sustain union membership is naive about the Chicago Way. When it comes down to it, the cost of having no job far out-weighs the cost of paying union dues.

In addition, how many members will risk the shaming, shunning, pressure and assorted punishments that union leaders will apply to force members to stay in. Workplace peer pressure and ridicule are powerful motivations. Fellow employees who are considered to be free-loaders for enjoying the benefits of a union-bargained contract without paying the costs will be ostracized. There's incriminating power in the stares of angry fellow-workers.

And how many will keep their membership based on their principles and self-interest? Having been an officer of the Chicago Newspaper Guild years ago, I'm guessing that many, many will. They see the unions and collective bargaining as their first line of defense against uncaring management. They understand that a weaker union means a lower quality of life for themselves or their families. They take seriously the idea and effectiveness of solidarity and unity. Just as President Donald Trump's witless attack emails has solidified and strengthened his opposition, so too will the perceived attack by the Supreme Court on labor's very existence stiffen their resolve.

In other words, the number of workers who will quit the unions is guess work. One estimate is that about 7 or 8 percent them will drop out, which represents a not  insignificant loss of revenue and political muscle.   About half of Illinois' 873,110 public employees are union members, according to the Chicago Tribune, citing U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counts. AFSCME represents more than 75,000 of them. 

Finally, the assertion that Illinois will be freed from organized labor's special interest agenda,  assumes that Democrats will think independently and for the good of the state. Democrats (and some Republicans) are wedded to ideological agendas that have contributed to Illinois' dire financial straits. They won't let go of their commitments so easily.

Nor will the court decision end  the all-consuming urge of politicians to act in their own interests. Log-rolling--the exchange of votes for projects favored by each legislator--will continue.

I strongly agree with the high court's decision, in the belief that the public employe union control of the Democrat Party in Chicago and Illinois has produced disastrous results--a crushing  $140 billion pension debt for one thing.

As a life-long Chicagoan and journalist, I have learned not to underestimate the cleverness and determination of Chicago Way practitioners to not just survive but to turn expected defeats into upset victories. Rack it up to cynicism on my part, I guess. That in Chicago and Illinois, corruption is nature's way. Something that even the highest court of the land can't cure.

My historical novel: Madness: The War of 1812

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