It's been a long time since a union has taken a hit in Springfield like the American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees took last week. The Illinois Senate Republicans held lockstep for more than eight hours last week, approving all but a handful of Governor George Ryan's 234 budgetary vetoes one by one. In the process, they closed eight state facilities and canceled the opening of another. All totaled, the Senate agreed with about $450 million in cuts that the governor had made to the budget that both chambers had passed just a week before.

As the votes wore on, the Senate Democrats all but gave up and most were voting with their Republican colleagues to slash thousands of state jobs with barely any debate.

Most statehouse types were aghast at AFSCME's rapid fall. Just a few short weeks ago, the Senate Republicans made a point of siding with the union by overwhelmingly approving a bill to prevent the governor from privatizing food services at state prisons. The move was seen as a blatant sop to the powerful union.

Last week, though, the Republicans decided to uphold the governor's veto of that legislation, dealing AFSCME yet another blow.

Senate President Pate Philip even ventured into deep southern Illinois last month to declare that a state prison in tiny Vienna would remain open no matter how much the governor wanted it shut down.

But then last week Pate personally lobbied his members to uphold Governor Ryan's vetoes to close eight state facilities, although the Vienna prison will stay open.

Even House Speaker Michael Madigan, usually a strong union ally whose daughter's attorney-general campaign would love to tap into AFSCME's deep political pockets this fall, praised the Senate Republicans last week for slashing the budget and killing off all those state jobs. Madigan said he had repeatedly asked the union's president to re-open the negotiations but was rebuffed. In the end, the speaker said, the state simply didn't have the money to save the jobs.

Could the closings have been prevented? AFSCME claims an additional nickel tacked onto the new 40-cent cigarette tax hike would have saved the eight facilities. But the governor's proposal, which AFSCME rejected, would have involved the union re-opening its contract and agreeing to an unpaid-furlough and wage-freeze plan, and that would have saved about as much money.

So, was AFSCME right or wrong? Every union has a duty to its members to demand that its contract be respected. And AFSCME officials have said over and over that if they gave in to the governor now, it would be easier for the next governor to tap them again when the state faces its next fiscal crisis.

But Governor Ryan always responds badly to personal attacks, and the union at times seemed to go out of its way to aggravate the big guy. Plus, Ryan has never really gotten over the way union honchos publicly bad-mouthed him and behaved during their often-rancorous contract negotiations.

And instead of looking for a compromise that might have saved jobs and perhaps even won some non-cash concessions from the guv, the union dug in, hurled invectives, and counted on its political muscle to hold the line. It didn't work.

It's also easy to forget that there are plenty of union politics involved with accepting broad-based givebacks. Internal union politics are not much different from legislative politics in this regard. The General Assembly and the governor chose some very targeted tax hikes to patch the gaping budget hole - cigarettes and gaming - rather than spreading the pain around to everybody because relatively few people (and, therefore, voters) have to pay.

Agreeing to a wage freeze and unpaid furloughs means every AFSCME member (and, therefore, union election voters) would take a hit. It's pretty obvious that, for AFSCME's leaders, layoffs target the political pain, as long as their union activists continue to blame the governor and the Senate Republicans for their woes. And blaming somebody else is what we humans usually do.

It's never right to blame the victim, though. Tactically, it's possible to fault AFSCME, but if the governor ruined the lives of thousands of state workers because he has thin skin, or just out of spite, rather than sound reasoning that those facilities actually should have been closed, then he truly is to blame.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (

Support the River Cities' Reader

Help Keep the Reader Alive and Free Since '93!


"We're the River Cities' Reader, and we've kept the Quad Cities' only independently owned newspaper alive and free since 1993. Now we find our ability to continue providing all the features you love in serious jeopardy without the financial support of our readers.

So please help the Reader keep going with your one-time, monthly, or annual support. With your financial support the Reader can continue providing uncensored, non-scripted, and independent journalism alongside the Quad Cities' area's most comprehensive cultural coverage." - Todd McGreevy, Publisher