The New York Times reported yesterday that Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner's chief political backer, Ken Griffin, made $1.3 billion last year as manager of the hedge fund Citadel Capital. Griffin made as much personally as 26,000 average Americans making the median wage. He made as much as 16,000 civil engineers.
Griffin made $625,000 per hour. By the way, for a portion of this income, he might have benefited from the federal tax law that allows hedge fund managers to pay a maximum of 20 percent tax rate, though his press spokesman claims that he he paid the full rate on all of his 2014 income.
Not only did Griffin donate $2.5 million to Rauner's campaign for governor. He also contributed millions to right-wing Super-PACs -- including one controlled by the notorious Charles and David Koch.
And he contributed $10 million -- half of a $20 million campaign war chest -- that Rauner plans to use to run opponents against members of the legislature who dare to oppose his policies that are aimed at destroying unions and cutting worker wages and pensions.
Rauner has proposed an "Illinois Turn Around Agenda" that would:
- Allow local areas to create so-called "right to work" zones where everyone represented by a union would not have to pay something toward negotiating and administering union contracts. The point of this provision is to starve unions financially and weaken their ability to stand up for the incomes of ordinary working people against people like Ken Griffin who could then siphon more money from companies he owns by paying workers less. Rauner has already tried to prevent state public employee unions from collecting "fair share" contributions from workers covered by contracts that are not union members. That move is being challenged in court.
- Abolish the state law requiring that local jurisdictions pay at least the prevailing local wage for construction projects funded with state money. This is aimed at advancing Rauner's announced desire to cut the average salary of state funded highway workers from49,000 per year to39,000 per year. Rauner believes that people who pour hot asphalt or run construction equipment shouldn't make as much for 12 months' work as his pal Griffin makes - literally - every 5 minutes.
- Eliminate the right of public employees to make voluntary contributions to candidates for public office through their unions. Rauner wants to leave the road clear for people like his friend Griffin to buy elections the same way they buy companies. Remember that the10 million dollars Griffin gave to Rauner's recent political fund cost him exactly 16 hours of pay.
- Cut worker's compensation benefits for workers who are hurt on the job.
But Rauner and Griffin have a problem. Illinois is not Wisconsin, where the GOP controlled both houses of the state legislature and -- after a massive months-long battle -- agreed to pass legislation that would emasculate unions that stand up for ordinary working people.
The Illinois legislature is controlled by Democrats who have so far refused to go along with this attack on the interests of everyday workers on behalf of the Ken Griffins of the world.
So Rauner and Griffin have resorted to hardball tactics. They are holding hostage the entire state budget unless the legislature folds and concedes to their demands.
Unfortunately for Rauner and Griffin, ordinary Illinois voters are not so stupid. A recent poll published by Public Policy Polling found that:
- Only 33 percent of voters in the state agree with Governor Rauner's agenda on "right to work", compared to 55 percent who think everyone represented by a union should have to pay something toward negotiating and administering its contracts.
- By 81 percent to 15 percent, voters oppose Rauner's attempts to gut the state's Workers' Compensation system.
- 68 percent of voters in the state think that the wage standard should continue to be set locally with a prevailing wage, while only 23 percent think the state should be able to pay below the local prevailing wage.
- Voters just generally disagree with Governor Rauner's philosophy toward unions.
- Only 42 percent think unions have too much power, compared to 56 percent who think they're necessary to fight for the middle class.
It's not so easy for people who make as much every minute and a half as a minimum wage worker takes home all year long to convince voters that it's a good idea to cut the pay of working people. It's not so easy for people like Rauner and Griffin to literally propose taking food from the mouths of hungry children by cutting the Illinois nutrition program in order to allow the state to cut taxes for the wealthy.
Appearances are not so good. And to top it off, Griffin has a massive personal interest in eliminating the rights of workers -- particularly public employees. Griffin's firm owns Service Master, a company that makes part of its money by privatizing public services.
But Rauner's monomaniacal obsession with eliminating the rights of ordinary people to engage in collective bargaining over their wages and working conditions comes from something deeper than simple desire to put even more money into the pockets of people like himself and his friend Griffin.
They believe that the rich should have the right to call the shots in society -- it's as simple as that. In fact, Griffin said he believed that wealthy elites have "insufficient influence" over democratic politics -- and politics in general.
Griffin and Rauner believe that America should be a plutocracy.
And they deeply believe that if they can buy a company, they should have the unfettered right to pay people whatever the "market will bear." In effect, they think people should be treated like soybeans and corn. Whatever the market price, that's what they should have to pay.
Fortunately ordinary people in America disagree. Most Americans believe that we are the point of the economy -- not just some "input of production." The goal of the economy is not to make a few people fabulously wealthy, it is to produce widely-shared prosperity for everyone who is willing to work hard.
And history has shown us that is only possible if everyone has the right to collective bargaining over their wages and working conditions, to demand a fair share of the fruits of their own increasing productivity.
In the last 35 years, Gross Domestic Product per person in America has grown 77 percent. That should have meant that everyone is 77 percent better off, but instead, the wages of most Americans have been stagnant. That's because the rules of the game have been rigged by people like Bruce Rauner and Ken Griffin to assure that virtually all of that increased wealth went to the top 1 percent.
Now they have the audacity to demand that ordinary people who work in public employment and make modest middle class incomes shouldn't be allowed to combine their political contributions to influence the outcome of elections. But they are happy to allow the super-rich like themselves to control politics with more and more $10 million contributions.
Rauner, Griffin, and their whole Koch Brothers-inspired crowd must be stopped now.
America is still the wealthiest country in the world. We have the technology, the natural resources and the hard-working, trained work force to create the most prosperous society in human history where anyone who works hard can have a fulfilling life.
But elections have consequences. And 2016 could be a pivotal, historic year -- a turning point year. Imagine what will happen to America if someone who shares Bruce Rauner's values becomes President and the House and Senate continue to be controlled by Republicans. Imagine what it would mean if people who share Griffin's and Rauner's views completely control the Supreme Court for a generation.
In 2016 we will have a chance to stop the plutocrats like Rauner and Griffin from snatching away that future and returning us to the plutocracy of the Gilded Age. Time for Progressives to saddle up. Failure is simply not an option.
Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on Amazon.com. He is a partner in Democracy Partners and a Senior Strategist for Americans United for Change. Follow him on Twitter @rbcreamer.