A demonstrator displays a sign at a march organized by the Chicago Teachers Union during their one-day strike on April 1, 2016. Credit: Photo by Stacey Rupolo

Chicago teachers, now gearing up for a possible strike, have been working without a contract for over a year.  But they aren’t the only public workers in Illinois in the same boat.

Contracts expired on the same day last summer – June 31, 2015 – for 27,000 teachers and support staff in the Chicago Teachers Union; 38,000 state workers, ranging from prison guards to child protection workers, represented by American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31; and over 50,000 childcare and home healthcare workers in Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois.

While the specifics of their situations differ, each union is fighting to protect public-sector unionism in the face of an unnecessary fiscal crisis.

Politically damaged by the teachers’ strike he precipitated two years ago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has dropped the harsh rhetoric, but the CTU and Chicago Public Schools seem to be talking past each other.  CPS CEO Forrest Claypool is focused on balancing this year’s budget at any cost, while the union is concerned about the impact of endless rounds of cuts on the quality of education.

Meanwhile, the union sees no reason why teachers – who live in the city and are being hit with all the tax hikes everyone else faces – should lose ground economically while developers continue to get rich tax increment financing district subsidies and banks are being paid billions for interest rate swap deals that may have been fraudulent.

State workers face an even more difficult situation, facing off against Gov. Bruce Rauner, who would just as soon dispense with unions altogether.

Rauner walked out of talks and has refused to negotiate with AFSCME since January, but an administrative law judge ruled last week against the governor’s attempt to declare an impasse in negotiations and impose a settlement (or provoke a strike).

It was a significant but partial victory for AFSCME: Rauner was ordered to “cease and desist from failing to bargain collectively in good faith” on the issues of wages and health care, but the judge declared an impasse on other issues, including sub-contracting.  The decision now goes to the state labor board.

Declaring an impasse on some issues – allowing Rauner to impose his “last, best, final offer,” though not without continued negotiation ­– creates an awkward situation for the union, since it takes those issues off the table for the kind of tradeoffs that negotiations typically entail.  Rauner has proposed a merit pay scheme, but his big push is to cut employees’ health care.

Rauner seems to be itching for a showdown – his administration even spread a false rumor that AFSCME had set a strike date. What he doesn’t want to do is negotiate, though it looks like he may be forced to.

‘Nickel-and-diming’ makes no economic sense

For home health care aides – who earn $13 an hour providing basic services that help people with disabilities stay in their homes – Rauner has proposed a four-year wage freeze, according to Kaitlin DeCero of SEIU.  And last year, after the federal Labor Department ruled home care workers are subject to overtime laws, Rauner instituted a 40-hour cap on those workers, which disability advocates argued created serious hardships for their clients.

Rauner backed off and rescinded the cap in August, hours before disability rights groups were set to file a lawsuit charging he had violated established rulemaking procedures.  Now he’s submitted the change to the Illinois Legislature’s administrative rulemaking commission – along with language that seems intended to weaken consumers’ right to choose their caregivers.

In contract talks, Rauner has also proposed a four-year freeze in the rates paid to child care providers, though the union argues many end up making little more than $5 an hour.

This summer, Rauner vetoed four bills that would have instituted protections for home care and child care programs and their workers.  One bill would have blocked a $200 million cut in the program providing home care for seniors; Rauner has proposed giving vouchers to non-Medicaid recipients.  Another would have restored previous income eligibility standards for child care; some 55,000 children lost access to that program due to Rauner’s cuts last year.

Nickel-and-diming these programs makes no sense from an economic standpoint.  Home care saves hundreds of millions of dollars by keeping seniors and people with disabilities in their homes rather than in institutions.  Child care assistance allows low-income families to work their way out of poverty, spend money in the economy and pay taxes.

The only way this make sense is if you hate unions and are willing to do anything, no matter how heartless, to get rid of them.

Rauner has refused to entertain discussions of revenue solutions, though he admits they are necessary.  Then he uses the budget crisis he’s created as a weapon against some of the lowest-paid workers in Illinois – simply because he disdains the union that seeks to raise their living standard.

Emanuel is more fiscally responsible, and has raised a host of regressive taxes to address the city’s financial quagmire.  But when it comes to schools, there’s no more money, and the only solution is to cut. (Except for new schools for wealthier neighborhoods.)

Austerity and union-busting won’t bring prosperity, unless you define prosperity as higher corporate profits and more luxury development.  Unfortunately, that seems to be the goal for our governor and mayor.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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