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Issues of labor, jobs key to 2014 election

Published: Saturday, Aug. 30, 2014 1:15 a.m. CDT

Labor Day arrives on the earliest possible date this year: Sept. 1.

That leaves a full 9 weeks of “official” campaigning before the Nov. 4 election.

Labor-related issues will be key over the next couple of months for this midterm election.

For governor. For U.S. Senate. For U.S. House. For Illinois Legislature.

Where you stand depends on ... where you sit, politically speaking.

The spin will be tremendous.

Better strap in.

DEMOCRATS WILL portray Illinois as a state in steady recovery since the Great Recession socked the Midwest especially hard.

Republicans will tell you the state’s Democratic administration has saddled Illinois with crushing debt and a burdensome tax structure that hamper recovery.

Both are accurate. Neither is true.

Sorting it out isn’t easy, and it will be made more difficult by context-free political bickering until Election Day.

Whom you believe depends on ... where you stand, politically speaking.

Put your boots on.

YOU WILL HEAR lots of facts.

On one hand, Illinois ranks near the bottom of the U.S. in job creation since the recession ended.

On the other hand, the state’s private-sector employment alone grew by 11,200 jobs in July. Over the past year, the private sector has added 28,700 jobs.

But then, among the 50 states and Washington, D.C., Illinois still ranks 42nd in job creation, with 5.81 million jobs in June 2014, up an anemic 3 percent from June 2009, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Then consider that during July, 445,400 Illinois residents were unemployed, down from a recent high of 753,500 in January 2010.

Still, 78,300 more people are unemployed in Illinois than when the recession began.

Then again, the unemployment rate in Illinois dropped to 6.8 percent in July, down 0.3 percentage point from June and down 2.4 points from a year earlier.

But with a 6.8 percent jobless rate, Illinois ranks 39th among the 50 states.

Illinois does, however, enjoy a higher household median income (17th) and lower poverty rate (24th) than most states.

Figures lie. Liars figure.

DEMOCRATS DID get their vote-inducing labor question on the fall ballot: An increase in the minimum wage to $10 an hour.

Of course, it’s merely an advisory referendum with no force of law.

But its populist premise, even if not a promise, might motivate more voters who are likely to vote Democratic, if you can believe conventional wisdom.

And the small crowd that would oppose such an increase was going to vote (against it) anyway, so it’s a no-lose proposition for Democrats to try to goose the turnout. They are likely going to need all the voters they can get in November.

Only two states have a minimum wage higher than Illinois’ $8.25 an hour, though several states have approved a series of graduated increases in coming years that will exceed that rate.

Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn supports an increase. His Republican challenger, Bruce Rauner, has staked out positions on both sides of the issue.

Democrats generally argue a higher minimum wage stimulates the economy by increasing incomes of people who spend everything they make.

Republicans generally argue it suppresses employment because it increases employers’ costs.

The referendum might not help Quinn’s floundering campaign.

But it won’t hurt him.

LABOR-WISE, RAUNER supports making Illinois a “right to work” state.

That gives workers in union shops the right to refuse membership in the bargaining unit, even if they still enjoy the benefits of negotiated wages and benefits.

Republicans generally argue that workers in union shops should not be forced to join, especially if their dues are used to support political causes and candidates they don’t like.

Democrats generally argue that “right to work for less” laws are really about weakening organized labor, which Republicans generally believe artificially inflates wages and other employer costs, which is a drag on the state’s economic growth.

The Democratic argument got some support this week by a new study from a labor expert at the University of Illinois.

Robert Bruno, a professor of labor and employment relations, said he found that right-to-work laws reduced union membership rates by almost 10 percent while reducing workers’ wages by an average of 3.2 percent. The lower wages, the study indicated, decreased state and federal tax revenues while increasing costs of government assistance programs.

That means collective bargaining states with higher wages – such as Illinois – “are subsidizing the low-wage model of employment in right-to-work states such as Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas,” Bruno reported.

Republicans will point out that Bruno’s study shows such laws increase the employment rate – by 0.4 percent. Otherwise, don’t expect them to be convinced by the study.

Happy Labor Day.

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