Friday, April 22, 2011
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A Wisconsin and Illinois showdown: handling state unions

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[April 22, 2011]  SPRINGFIELD -- The two states share a border, but that's about all that Illinois and Wisconsin have in common these days.

How the two states deal with their respective public-sector unions and state employees is as different as night and day.

The Illinois Senate last week approved a measure on education reform, sponsored by state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Westchester, that deals primarily with teachers' collective bargaining rights. Written into the legislation are tougher standards that could lead to the firing of poorly performing teachers.

Illinois's northern neighbor, Wisconsin, had been in the national spotlight in recent months after its newly elected governor moved through a package of union reform measures that effectively limits collective bargaining to issues of wages and limits pay increases to the rate of inflation. It also calls for public employees to contribute more to the cost of their health care and pension plans.

Thousands of protesters descended on the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, loudly proclaiming their displeasure with the reform package. Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed the measure into law last month, but it is stalled in court.

Several pundits have weighed in on how the two states handled their issues with public employee unions and examined the different approaches by the two governors.

Adam Andrzejewski, who ran unsuccessfully in the Republican gubernatorial primary in Illinois, called Walker's actions courageous.

"He actually ran on the policies that he's implemented, so he was very transparent about it when he was running for governor of Wisconsin. He told the taxpayers exactly what he was going to do," Andrzejewski said. "They elected him, and then he did it -- now this is very refreshing from a politician."

Jeff Tucek, team leader for pension and compensation reform for the Illinois Tea Party, said if Walker had increased income taxes -- as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn did -- to fill the public-sector's pension deficit, then perhaps the unions would not have been so visibly upset. But that doesn't mean Tucek is in agreement with Quinn, who is a staunch supporter of collective bargaining.

"Collective bargaining (with public sectors) -- that's the thing that really has to go. It can't survive in a world that we can afford anymore," Tucek said. "And basically it really (is) counterproductive for really good people, no matter who you are -- police, (firefighters), teachers -- because it doesn't allow the best to come forward. They all get promised the same thing, and it holds us down."

Not everyone admires Walker's approach, however.

Cheryl Maranto, an associate professor from Marquette University in Milwaukee, said Illinois worked through five months of negotiations with unions, teachers, parents and lawmakers to come up with solutions found in the pending legislation.

"Nobody is fully happy with it -- everybody kind of feels like they got what they needed, which is what collective bargaining is supposed to be about," said Maranto, who researches public-sector labor laws. "It's just (a) complete unilateral position in Wisconsin. There aren't any discussion(s) whatsoever or attempts to identify what the real underlying issues were or if there were other ways to do it."

She also said Walker has ulterior motives.

"Even though the bill is about collective bargaining, the purpose of it really is to cut wages and benefits of public employees. He's framed it as being a budget measure," Maranto said.

Multiple attempts to reach Walker's office by telephone were unsuccessful. But the governor's website states that collective bargaining fiscally impacts the government, and the changes he signed are critical to keeping the state moving forward financially.

Illinois' public-sector pension system had a $54.4 billion deficit in January, the latest month for which figures are available, according to the Sunshine Review, a nonprofit organization that promotes state and local government transparency. Wisconsin's public-sector pension system had a $252 million deficit for the same month, Sunshine Review reported.

Quinn, a Democrat, has constantly chided Walker in the media.

"If you're the union and you represent the teachers, you should have good collective bargaining. You're not going to win everything, but that's what life is all about -- discussion, debate, a dialog and ultimately coming to an agreement," Quinn said.

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Illinois might soon be facing a similar battle as in Wisconsin. Chicago mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel recruited Jean-Claude Brizard -- who's been a supporter of charter schools and merit pay for teachers -- as the chief executive officer for Chicago Public Schools, one of the largest primary and secondary school systems in the nation.

Critics said leadership is also key to handling public unions.

Tom Britton, associate professor of law from Southern Illinois University, said that "leaders have a lot of obligation to stake out reasonable positions."

"And as long as they do that, there's opportunity for resolutions of disputes," he said. "But as long as (they) stake out positions that are so hard and so firm, I think there's little chance of dispute resolution. ... I think we've seen that in Wisconsin, and that's why the Democratic legislators left Wisconsin."

Illinois and Wisconsin have similarities and differences with political leadership. The Illinois General Assembly's majority party is Democrat, as is Quinn. Wisconsin's General Assembly's majority party is Republican, as is Walker.

Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate fled the state, crossing the border into Illinois, when it was time to vote on Walker's collective bargaining measure. The Republicans amended the bill, removing financial aspects so a supermajority was not required. Both chambers of the Wisconsin General Assembly approved the legislation.

Andrzejewski called the move a hard fight.

"The Democrats in Wisconsin are actually fighting for their constituencies -- the public-sector union," he said.

But Briton said it was simply the minority party trying to flex any political muscles they could.

"Even for the minority party, I think you have to acknowledge their existence," Britton said. "You have to work toward some form of acceptable resolution with the minority party."

Robert Bruno, professor and director of labor education programs at University of Illinois at Chicago, said the different political parties handle public employee unions differently.

"I don't think that it's any secret that there's a pretty sharp division between the two parties in their commitments to particular economic agendas and social causes and institutions that they uphold," Bruno said. "And shifts (in Wisconsin) from Democrats to Republicans in this political climate have led to a much more -- frankly, one of the most, if not the most -- anti-labor working-class agenda that we've seen in the last couple of decades."

Critics have said that Walker was unwilling to negotiate.

"You need some sort of system of mediating those conflicts and trying to sit down and negotiate with various conflicting interests," said William Powell Jones, labor historian from University of Wisconsin.

Jones said things would have played out differently if Wisconsin negotiated.

"Theoretically it could have taken as long as this has taken, but certainly I think it would have not (have) created this sort of political gridlock that we're seeing now," he said.

Maranto, the collective bargaining expert from Marquette University, said no matter what their political leaning, each state could learn something from the other.

[Illinois Statehouse News; By MARY J. CRISTOBAL]

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