Illinois attorney general says GOP Gov. Rauner's proposals to weaken unions would be illegal

Illinois' Democratic attorney general on Friday delivered a blow to Gov. Bruce Rauner's efforts to weaken labor unions, saying two of the main ideas the Republican has been pitching across the state would be illegal.

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Lisa Madigan issued formal opinions at the request of Democratic lawmakers who anticipated legislation would be proposed after Rauner first trumpeted his plans in his State of the State speech last month.

One proposal would allow voters to create "right-to-work zones" in Illinois counties where union membership and dues would be voluntary. The other would let local governments or school districts opt out of prevailing wage agreements, which require workers on public works projects to receive wages that reflect local compensation for similar jobs.

Rauner's office, in a statement, noted voters would decide whether his proposed legislation to protect employee rights should apply within their respective county, municipality, school district or other unit of local government. It said that would comply with the National Labor Relations Act.

Before crowds across Illinois in recent weeks, the multimillionaire businessman has argued unions have too much power and that overly generous salaries, benefits and pensions helped create Illinois' financial crisis. He says local voters should decide whether union influence should be curbed.

Rauner also says school districts could save almost $160 million per year if prevailing wage laws were changed and that establishing zones where employees have a choice on whether to join a union would help attract businesses — and much-needed jobs — to the state.

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But Madigan said federal labor law only allows right-to-work to be enacted on a statewide basis, not by individual counties. She said both ideas also would violate state law.

Changing those laws or passing a right-to-work on a statewide basis would be nearly impossible in Illinois, where Democrats hold supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature and several Republican legislators also have been allies of organized labor.

Democratic state Sen. Gary Forby, one of the legislators who requested the legal opinion, said he hoped it would put an end to Rauner's rhetoric so lawmakers can instead focus on a state budget that is billions of dollars in the red.

"This guy, all he talks about is right-to-work states," said Forby, the chairman of the Senate's labor committee. "Well, now he can stop talking about right-to-work states and go back to trying to do a budget for the state of Illinois."

Madigan's opinions are just the latest in what's been a rocky early attempt by Rauner to take on organized labor. After he issued an executive order and sued to try to eliminate fees paid to unions by workers who choose not to join, more than two dozen unions filed their own lawsuit to stop him. Madigan also ruled that action by the governor was illegal, and the Republican comptroller said she wouldn't comply with the governor's plan to hold the dues in a state escrow account.

Rauner, who has called governors in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan who have stripped rights from unions his "role models," also has proposed banning unions from making campaign contributions.

Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan said Madigan's opinions confirmed what unions suspected from the start.

"While Gov. Rauner continues his obsessive war on unions and the middle class, he just keeps running into huge road blocks - like the law," Carrigan said.

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Associated Press writers John O'Connor and Nick Swedberg in Springfield, Illinois contributed.