10/22/2013 11:51 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Labor Boosts Legislative Allies in Looming Illinois Pension Fight

Everybody is working on Illinois pension reform.

While the 10 lawmakers on the pension conference committee have been working to erect a sturdy pension reform bill during the summer, top organized labor unions have been working to reinforce their allies for any fight that might emerge during the legislature's veto session, starting this week.

In the third quarter, the key labor players in the We Are One Illinois coalition - the Illinois Education Association, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, the Illinois AFL-CIO and AFSCME Council 31 bolstered overwhelmingly the lawmakers who opposed Senate Bill 1, House Amendment #1, the harsher version of pension reform pushed by House Speaker Michael Madigan during the spring session. They filled their campaign accounts with $532,759.

The IEA accounted for the bulk of the contributions: $312,600. The group's biggest contribution - $25,000 - went to State Rep. Sandy Pihos (R-Glen Ellyn). Pihos, who voted "no" on Madigan's SB 1 in May, is facing a tough Tea Party challenge from Lombard Village Trustee Peter Breen. While the 10-year veteran needs the cash because her earlier fundraising had been feeble, union campaign cash is radioactive among GOP primary voters. So, the IEA's help could cut both ways.

The IEA, which raked in $490,224 from dues during the third quarter, lavished cash on other top allies, too. State Rep. Dennis Reboletti (R-Elmhurst), who is seeking to replace Kirk Dillard in the State Senate, snagged $20,000. Freshman State Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) picked up $15,000. Another freshman, State Rep. Charlie Meier (R-Okawville), banked $10,000. Ditto State Rep. Dan Beiser (D-Alton). State Rep. Ann Williams (D-Chicago) got $7,500.

Despite writing big checks, IEA still ended the quarter with $2,241,849 in the bank.

The IEA's spokesman, however, dismissed the notion that the PAC contributions had much to do with SB 1.

"Our contributions to IEA-recommended legislators had less to do with their position on SB1 and more to do with the fact that we don't make contributions or sponsor events when the G.A. is in session," Charlie McBarron said.


The Illinois Federation of Teachers, which hauled in dues of $554,362, contributed $103,900 to lawmakers, including $15,000 to State Senator and treasurer hopeful Mike Frerichs (D-Champaign), $10,000 to State Rep. Jay Hoffman (D-Collinsville), $1,500 to State Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia (D-Aurora) and $1,000 to State Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Smithton) - all "no" votes on SB 1.

The IFT had $1,628,758 left in the bank.

Another ferocious opponent of Madigan-like pension reform, AFSCME, handed out $65,400 to lawmakers. Frerichs picked up another $15,000. State Rep. Mike Smiddy (D-Hillsdale) got $10,000. The Black Caucus snared $5,000 - as did the Downstate Democratic Caucus. The Downstate GOP got $2,500. State Reps. Rita Mayfield (D-Waukegan) and John Cavaletto (R-Salem) each received $2,000.

The Illinois AFL-CIO sent $50,859 to lawmakers but played both sides of the fence in order to avoid completely alienating Madigan. The AFL-CIO gave SB 1 opponents, such as Democratic State Reps. Dan Beiser, Will Davis, and freshman State Senator Melinda Bush $1,000 each. But the union also wrote a $25,000 check to the Democratic Party of Illinois, which is chaired by Madigan.

The AFL-CIO ended the quarter with cash-on-hand totaling $177,936.

Labor insiders says that within the broader We Are One coalition, which includes SEIU among others, there exists strains between the various unions over the harsh, public line taken by AFSCME's leader Henry Bayer and that they have some differences over "red lines". And few are eager to aggressively cross Madigan.

State Rep. Mike Zalewski (D-Riverside), a member of the pension conference committee, responded cautiously to the impact that those contributions would have on his colleagues' future action on pension reform.

"The General Assembly has been wrestling with the pension issue for so long that my sense is that my colleagues have a clear sense of urgency to save the systems, improve our state's bond rating, and devote more money to core state services regardless of any political activities by themselves or third parties," Zalewski said. "I'd also add that for myself and my members this has never been about "us vs. them" when it came to the unions."

State Rep. Elaine Nekritz (D-Northbrook), a key committee member, shrugged off the union contributions.

"I can't speak for the Senate, but the House previously passed a bill that was vigorously opposed by the We Are One coalition," Nekritz said. "While I recognize it will be difficult to pass a pension bill, it is achievable."

Labor has reinforced its allies to prove Nekritz wrong.

If the unions, however, lose?

They have an immense amount of cash in the bank to take revenge.

David also edits, with the help of Capitol Fax's Rich Miller,
The Illinois Observer: The Insider, in which this article first appeared.