A fight is brewing over Gov. Bruce Rauner's decision to end a requirement that Illinois state workers pay union dues even if they don't want to join a union.
Labor leaders said Tuesday they're looking into legal options to challenge a federal lawsuit the Republican governor filed against more than two dozen public-employee unions. The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Chicago, seeks to have "fair share" dues declared unconstitutional.
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Rauner also issued an executive order Monday directing that the dues withheld from paychecks of about 6,500 employees be placed in an escrow account rather than forwarded to unions. The money will be held in the account until the court case is decided, and returned to workers if the courts rule in Rauner's favor.
Withholding the dues could keep an estimated $3.75 million from being deposited into the unions' bank accounts, according to estimates provided by Rauner's office.
"We're going to have to defend ourselves," said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, one of the unions named in the suit. He expected a lengthy and expensive legal battle.
Others said they were starting to educate union members about the impact of Rauner's actions and were considering public mobilizations.
"Our members are resolved and think this is very unfair," said Illinois Nurses Association executive director Alice J. Johnson. "They're not going to give up. They're going to fight for their union."
It was the first real action Rauner has taken against the unions, after months of calling them "corrupt" and blaming them for many of Illinois' financial problems. The multimillionaire former businessman also said during his State of the State address last week that he wants to ban campaign contributions from public-employee unions and create local zones, sometimes referred to as "right-to-work zones," where paying union dues would be voluntary.
About 45,000 state employees are covered by collective bargaining agreements between their unions and the state. Those workers who choose to join their union pay full dues, including a portion intended to support political activity. Workers who choose not to join pay the "fair share" dues — a smaller amount intended to cover the cost of collective bargaining, handling of grievances and other non-political activities from which all workers benefit.
But Rauner says labor unions' activities — including negotiating against cuts in salary or benefits — are inherently political. He says forcing non-members to contribute part of their paychecks to those activities is a violation of their First Amendment rights.
On Tuesday, the National Right to Work Foundation said it's offering free legal assistance to any state workers who want to exercise their right to not pay dues. The group has provided similar services in Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana, where GOP governors — all of whom Rauner has called his role models — have taken steps to weaken unions.
Meanwhile, union leaders questioned the timing of the lawsuit, which comes days before Rauner is set to deliver his first budget address.
"We have yet to hear one concrete idea about how he's going to pull out of this fiscal mess," Montgomery said. "Instead, what he's done are the most heinous, viscous, misinformed and misleading attacks on working people we've certainly ever seen in Illinois."