THE BLOG
01/26/2016 11:58 am ET Updated Jan 26, 2017

Rauner, AFSCME Impasse Could Benefit The Governor

Opinion by Reboot Illinois' Madeleine Doubek

Gov. Bruce Rauner's request that that state's labor relations board declare an impasse between his administration and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 31 didn't get too much attention when it was announced, but it certainly will be one to watch.

Rauner spoke out vehemently against organized labor, in general, and AFSCME in particular, during the 2014 Republican primary, but not many non-primary voters were paying attention. After a close call in the primary, when unions rallied against him and made the race much closer than expected, Rauner curtailed the anti-union theme through the general election campaign. When he came out swinging against unions, fair-share fees and prevailing-wage laws shortly after his inauguration, he seemed to stir a sleeping giant.

The anti-union rhetoric seemed harsher, I suspect, than many independent voters who supported Rauner were expecting. His anti-union Turnaround Tour also solidified public labor's animosity toward him and support for Democratic legislative leaders.

Plenty of people have speculated since that Rauner pushed too hard, too far, too fast in his anti-union crusade, but was he playing the long game all along?

Consider the down-the-road scenarios from Rauner's request to the labor board.

If the labor board sides with AFSCME and its nearly 40,000 members, then Rauner and the union continue negotiating and essentially keep at what they've been doing for the past year. It would be a win for AFSCME, but it's mostly a moral victory. Certainly they get to thumb their noses at the governor and give themselves and Democrats a round of high-fives and I-told-you-sos, but it's not as if they'd be winning huge concessions or big pay raises. They just go back to negotiating.

In announcing he was going to the labor board, Rauner noted that its majority was appointed by Quinn and that he re-appointed two Quinn appointees. AFSCME's Executive Director Roberta Lynch said union leadership did not believe it was at an impasse. She made clear the union will seek any and all appeals and legal recourse available to it if the board doesn't side with union management.

If the labor board sides with Rauner and declares the two sides are at an impasse, then Rauner wins the moral victory and probably much, much more. At that point, Rauner can offer the union his last, best offer. AFSCME leadership then must decide whether to accept that last offer or strike, something they have never done.

If they accept Rauner's last, best offer, it's a big win for Rauner. He becomes the taxpayer's hero by saving the state money in personnel costs. Moreover, he boosts his national bona fides as the cutthroat business management dealer. He will claim he pushed the state's biggest union several steps closer to private-sector pay levels. He already has noted he's successfully re-negotiated contracts with several other, much smaller unions this year as the state faces never-before-seen levels of debt.

If AFSCME strikes, Rauner could be an even bigger winner. In this scenario, don't be surprised if he fires striking workers and then hires new workers at far cheaper salaries and benefits. Likewise, he could re-hire former state workers at far cheaper salaries and benefits. He'll be a bigger hero nationally and in Illinois, claiming to have stood up for taxpayers and stood up to what he will portray as the unreasonable and greedy union bosses who control the state and its Democratic party. The governor can dip into his campaign fund to send that message far and wide should he so choose. Depending on when that labor board ruling comes, all of this also could become campaign fodder for both Rauner and the unions this fall as they battle for control of legislative majorities.

Again, if the labor board rules with the governor and the union opts to rouse its members against the evil, union-busting Rauner Rule by striking, a long walkout could just compound the pressure on Democrats to start working with Rauner here and there. Perhaps helped by a governor uncooperative and unwilling to negotiate with the union, a long strike might help build enough pressure from Illinois voters and citizens to end, finally, the ceaseless political playground games we've been forced to endure or ignore for the past year.

Illinois remains more blue than red and Rauner did anger and solidify the hatred union households feel for him after his inauguration, so I don't doubt many Illinoisans will stand in solidarity with AFSCME.

That said, the long-game scenarios look pretty good for the governor.

And with Gov. Bruce Rauner's second State of the State Address a day away, make sure you check out Reboot Illinois' infographic to catch up on the state's current condition, from pensions and jobs to education and the estimated bill backlog for fiscal year 2016.

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