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Gabrielle Levy/MEDILL

As Wisconsin's Democratic state senators continue to take refuge in Illinois, protestors gathered in Madison for what was estimated to be the largest demonstration in the state's capitol since the Vietnam years. Gov. Scott Walker continues to stand firm that public unions must give up their collective bargaining rights in order to fix a gaping hole in the state budget, but protestors and Democratic legislators say his measure goes too far.

With collective bargaining at stake in Wisconsin, is Illinois next?

by Gabrielle Levy
March 01, 2011

Wisconsin senators hide out in Chicago

For two weeks, Wisconsin's 14 Democratic state senators have been living at undisclosed locations around Chicago in an attempt to prevent a "budget repair" bill from going to vote and stripping public unions of their collective bargaining rights.


Gov. Scott Walker, just two months since taking office, has angered public workers across the state with the legislation he says is critical in the effort to plug a $137 million hole in the state's annual budget. Walker has said he could begin laying off state workers as soon as Tuesday, with a legal deadline to finish processing new state debt financing by March 16.


State Democrats hope by staying outside the state, and thus preventing the bill from seeing a vote in the Senate, they will force the governor to compromise. The unions have agreed on the proposed cuts to medical and retirement benefits, but Walker says he won't accept a deal without the removal of collective bargaining rights.


Walker is to deliver his budget address Tuesday. Indiana senators are facing a similar situation and are staying in Urbana.

Illinois is unlikely to see efforts to strip public-employee unions of their collective bargaining powers similar to those going on in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio, observers say. But with the state deep in its own financial woes, experts and union leaders say they aren't taking anything for granted.

One key factor is that Illinois, unlike its Midwest neighbors, retained Democratic majorities in November's election.

As thousands of protesters marched Saturday at the capitol building in Madison, Wis., supporters of union rights gathered in Chicago, and in cities across the country, to stand in solidarity with Wisconsin workers and to express their anger at what they see as a coordinated attack on labor by newly elected Republican governors and legislators.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has proposed a set of measures, including cuts to public workers' benefits, that he says are necessary to plug a $137 million operating deficit in the state's budget. But the sticking point for workers is not the money--they have agreed to those cuts--but the limits it places on the collective bargaining rights of the unions.

Similar legislation has been proposed in 14 other states, including Indiana and Ohio. Illinois has instead become a refuge for Democratic leaders who have fled their own states to prevent these measures from going to a vote.

"It's not going to be a full-scale assault like in Wisconsin," said Steven Ashby, a professor of labor studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign. "But the budget crisis is real and very deep in Illinois."

Ashby said that the scale of the protests in Madison, which have reached 100,000 people according to police estimates, is giving pause to any politician who may have considered taking up the issue of collective bargaining.

"It's transforming the labor movement," Ashby said. "No one voted for them to do a wholesale war on teachers. I think they've deeply overreached."

Ashby said the heavy participation by groups such as the firefighters and police unions that typically lean Republican is telling. "This is my kid's teacher, this is my firefighter down the street," he said. Efforts in Wisconsin districts that flipped from Democratic in 2010 are putting pressure on newly elected Republicans "to think, 'Am I going to lose the election next
time? I've got people who voted for me telling me this is wrong.’"

Thomas Ryan, president of the Chicago Firefighters Union, traveled to Madison Monday, where he said he spoke to workers who "are really hurting."

"I think everybody understands the economic climate, but this was caused by Wall Street," Ryan said. "This could happen anywhere."

Ryan said he spoke with Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel the day after last week's election.

"[Emanuel] reiterated that he does not want to attack the pensions," he said. "He said that he will have an open door policy with unions, and all we can ask for is for our voice to be heard."

But at the state level, the Illinois Federation of Teachers is watching a proposed legislation that they say is an attempt to eliminate collective bargaining for teachers.

"It's actually worse than that Gov. Walker is proposing in Wisconsin," said federation spokesman Dave Comerford. He said the proposal would make it so "the district could legally walk in and say they're going to cut pay and there's literally no recourse" for the unions.

The group responsible for the proposal, which was heard by a special committee convened by Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan (D-Chicago), is supported by a coalition of child advocacy and business groups. While Comerford said they are by no means taking these measures for granted, "I think our lawmakers are watching what's going on [in Madison] and saying they hope it won't happen here."

Robert Bruno, a labor expert also at University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, said that while the issues facing unions across the Midwest are absolutely on the table in Illinois and Chicago, it's the process that will determine the outcome.

"It's a matter of what's done and how it's done," Bruno said. "The incoming mayor, it seems, has signaled his own desire to do something around pension reform. … One would certainly expect that [unions] would be at the table. We have Democrats that have been elected with organized labor support."