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The union label is wearing thin in Illinois

SPRINGFIELD – For years organized labor has boasted of its strength in numbers, but as its membership has dwindled, increasingly its political clout has come in the form of dollars going to politicians.

Once-powerful labor unions in Illinois and across the country are losing their luster.

In fact, between 2005 and 2011, the number of union workers in Illinois dropped from 927,000 to 876,000.

Despite the 5.5 percent membership drop, the amount of money Illinois unions have given to politicians has increased 41 percent during the same period.

“Unions aren’t persuading people to join, so the only way they can exert influence is through lobbying and political campaigns,” said Paul Kersey,  my Illinois Policy Institute colleague,.

Kersey, director of labor policy, just wrote “The Labor Book, a Guide to Illinois Government Unions.”

The book is a must read for folks wanting to gain a better understanding  of diverse issues such as  school reform, taxation, government spending and pension transformation.

In all of these issues, unions exert disproportionate influence on the legislative process.

And as Labor Day approaches, it’s important to remember that the makeup of organized labor has changed.

As Kersey notes in his book, in 1983, 75 percent of all Illinois union members worked in the private sector. Today, that number has dropped to 56 percent.

Marketplace pressures have reduced union membership in private industry, but so far in Illinois government unions have been protected from such forces, Kersey said.

“It’s hard to know if government workers really want to be a part of the union,” he said. “Right now, they are forced to pay dues to the union – whether they want to or not.”

And it’s even harder to know whether rank-and-file union members agree with how union bosses allocate their dues.

It is from these workers that money flows into union political activism. And union bosses heading the committees decide what politicians to aid.

Unions also run large political action committees. According to the Labor Book, between 2002 and 2012, the state’s six major union PACs gave more than $25 million to politicians. Of those dollars, 81 percent flowed to Democrats and 19 percent went to Republicans.

The problem with these hefty PAC donations is that government union leaders are negotiating with the very people whose campaigns they are funding.

This is one reason the Illinois state pension systems are the worst funded in the nation.

Union leaders have been successful with negotiating higher wages and better benefits. But another one of the main roles of a union boss is to serve as a steward of their members’ pension systems.

As of 2012, Illinois’ five state pension systems were only 39 percent funded, according to the Commission on Government Forecasting and Accountability. Under this system, the risk for workers is that their retirement money simply won’t be there. Rank-and-file union members are left without options because they can’t exit these failing pension systems.

When workers in Wisconsin were given a choice about whether to join a union, many opted out.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees council representing city and county workers in Milwaukee has experienced a 61 percent drop in membership during the past 2 years. And the AFSCME council representing state workers saw its membership fall 35 percent, the MacIver Institute reports.

When workers are allowed to make this decision for themselves, union bosses are held accountable for their actions – they can’t just continue to follow a failing status quo because their performance is tied to the size and strength of their membership. But here in Illinois, forced union membership for government workers is commonplace, and union bosses are free to carry on without any consequences.

And frankly, that is unfair.

Don’t Illinois workers deserve the same right to choose as their brothers and sisters in Indiana, Michigan and the 22 other right-to-work?

All-powerful union bosses are perpetuating an unfair atmosphere for workers in Illinois. It’s high time Illinois lawmakers freed up workers, allowing them to make their own choices when it comes to whether or not to support a union.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist in residence at the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at

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