State budget struggles affect workers: Four now solved – even Illinois
Bruce Rauner. | Seth Perlman/AP

Workers and their allies overcame Republican and extremist right wing obstructionism and financial shenanigans to solve four state budget crises in the first week of July – but not without some hair-raising episodes, including short shutdowns in Maine and New Jersey.

The outcomes there and in Washington state, plus the first raise for Louisiana state workers in a decade – thanks to AFSCME lobbying – left just Illinois in the lurch until July 6. Right- wing GOP Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed a balanced budget because it didn’t include his pet anti-worker and anti-union provisions. The Democratic-run legislature overrode him.

The struggles over the state budgets, especially in states where the GOP holds governors’ chairs, are part of a nationwide campaign by the party, its business backers, and the extremist right to weaken and de-fund unions. They especially target public employee unions such as AFSCME, teachers’ unions, and, in some states, the Communications Workers.

Their object is to weaken those unions and destroy their financial ability to both defend union members against corporate excesses and to fight the right wing agenda.

Their wars didn’t work in Maine, New Jersey, Washington, and ultimately Illinois. Plus AFSCME Council 17’s two-month campaign convinced both a state commission and the GOP-run Louisiana legislature to OK a 2 percent raise for state workers.

Illinois lawmakers – including 10 state House Republicans and the majority Democrats – defied Rauner and passed a balanced budget, with a combination of cuts and a state income tax hike. But first, the situation in Springfield, got – or remained – weird.

Lawmakers sent Rauner the balanced budget on June 28, but he promptly vetoed it, following two years of no budgets due to his prior vetoes. Rauner campaigned to use the budget to freeze state workers’ pay, slash their health care, cut their pensions and force anti-union rules on them. AFSCME District Council 31 represents 38,000 state workers.

The lack of a general spending plan, other than spending that courts ordered after Illinois workers’ unions sued, led to everything from agency shutdowns to no new drivers’ licenses to layoffs and no paychecks at state universities to junk bond status for Illinois securities to Illinois’ withdrawal from a multi-state lottery drawing and jackpot.

In one recent twist, after the Democratic-run State Senate overrode Rauner’s veto, the newsletter Capitol Fax reported new voices asking the State House to do so: Illinois Action for Children and the Ounce of Prevention Fund, service groups headed by Rauner’s wife, Diana.

“The approved budget—the first full-year, fully-funded budget since FY2014 – provides significant funding to early childhood programs including Preschool for All and Prevention Initiative, home visiting programs, the Child Care Assistance Program, and Early Intervention,” the two groups said in urging lawmakers to overturn the governor’s veto.

“We applaud the members…in both parties who took the tough vote to try to end this impasse. We hope the House can take one more important vote to move Illinois forward,” the two groups added. After a “hazmat situation” in the Capitol building on July 6 briefly postponed that vote, the House overrode Rauner 71-42, with 10 Republicans joining 61 Democrats.

In New Jersey, GOP Gov. Chris Christie lost his bid to divert $300 million from the state Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield reserves to pay for workers’ pensions he previously refused to fund. The Democratic-run legislature forced him to yield and dump his Horizon-stripping plan.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto “demonstrated unwavering courage, leadership, and love for New Jersey and its working families,” the state AFL-CIO said. “We owe him and those legislators who stood strong in opposition to the governor a sincere debt of gratitude. These champions of our state showed the political courage we would expect of all lawmakers.

“With regards to Horizon, the labor movement was adamant that policy holders and workers be protected. The deal respects this fact and would not result in higher premiums and would direct surplus funds, beyond a certain threshold, back to subscribers. Once again, we thank our affiliates, community partners, and legislators who lent their support during this three-day crisis to fight for what is right.”

“The Chris Christie Shutdown of 2017 is over, we are back to work, but as is almost always the case with Chris Christie, after everyone else has gone home, we are left to clean up the mess,” said CWA New Jersey President Hetty Rosenstein, whose union represents 55,000 state and local workers.

“Prieto said no” to Christie’s schemes, “as did all of the public sector unions, and allies such as New Jersey Working Families Alliance, Action Together New Jersey, Sierra Club, Clean Water Action, AFL-CIO, New Jersey Citizen Action and every progressive organization in the state.”

After the shutdown and the agreement, state offices reopened July 5. CWA cheered, but warned: “It’s Christie. So he’s going to try to not make us ‘whole.’ He hasn’t agreed to pay our members for the day(s) we were locked out.” The union will also fight for that, for their contract, for cost-of-living raises and for pensions, Rosenstein added.

Maine’s 3-day shutdown ended with legislators defying right-wing GOP Gov. Paul LePage by passing a budget. Workers, represented by the Service Employees, won. “We succeeded because you and your coworkers showed collective power and solidarity,” said Rod Hiltz, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989. His local represents more than 13,000 Maine state workers.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.