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Growing up in Chicago during the baby boomer era, almost everybody knew someone — whether it was a relative or an immediate family member — that was a part of a labor union. In fact, it was almost taboo to not be a part of one if you were considered a member of  the “working class.” Labor unions represented a layer of protection and an opening door of opportunity for those who rarely had them and gradually dissipated the lines of race, gender and economic class over the years.

In early February, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner signed an executive order that, if allowed to pass, would prevent public-sector unions in the state from collecting mandatory dues from employees who choose to decline union membership. These “fair share” dues are a way for unions to guarantee that the people who benefit from union contracts contribute their fair share for the cost of organizing and running the union.

Currently, in over 25 states, Republicans are pushing for the right-to-work bill which will allow workers to not participate in paying membership dues but still benefit from a union-negotiated contract.

Illinois has a long history of organized labor organizations that dates back to the turn of the century when the American Federation of Labor’s Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen of North America (AMC) was formed. The union was comprised of mostly Irish and German immigrant workers that provided unskilled laborers a chance to stabilize their working conditions with wage increases and better employment conditions. Soon after, the owners of these packing houses brought in Black and immigrant workers as strike breakers to disband the AMC. As these unions continued to transition and to build strength, they were considered only for white men, thereby isolating African American workers.

During the great northern migration of Blacks from the South, in the 1950s and 1960s, the unions from the United Packinghouse Workers of America eventually merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters with only a handful of plants remaining in Chicago. Other unions that began to build a strong African American membership included the Amalgamated Transit Union (CTA, RTA, and Metra), AFL-CIO, SEIU, and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) among other strong labor organizations in Illinois.

Recorder Secretary Michael E. Brunson of the CTU comments, “There are a large number of African Americans in unions and people need to be members if they want to earn a decent living wage with adequate health benefits. If they want to have a secure retirement, a voice in the workplace and a fair amount of job security, they need to be in a union.”

Just recently Rauner addressed reporters about his concerns with politicians receiving political donations from organized labor unions. He gave an example of the political support and the Chicago Teachers’ Union endorsement of mayoral candidate, Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.

“When government union leaders can give significant campaign cash to a politician, and then after they get elected, then negotiate whether it’s their salary or their pensions or the healthcare — it’s a conflict,” Rauner said.

In his move to push for “‘right-to-work” zones in Illinois, Rauner plans to disengage state workers from having to pay union dues so that more businesses can come into the state and open non-union shops. Although it seems like he is encouraging the First Amendment rights of freedom of speech, it is also a dangerous play by Republicans to water down power from its minority members.

In a statement issued by the Chicago Federation of Labor, they point out, “One of his {Rauner’s} proposed savings streams is to severely underfund workers’ pensions. What he is neglecting to acknowledge is Illinois workers have faithfully paid into the system with the understanding that when they retire, they would receive a modest pension for their years of dedicated service to the state.”

There is a great deal at stake as Illinois is considered a “blue collar” state where organized labor has maintained a voice for over a century. Although union memberships have fallen approximately 35 percent since the 1950s, the Republicans have had to fight unions as they compete with foreign labor overseas.

Rauner is demonstrating once again that he does not care about the legislative process even though Democrats control both houses in Springfield. This latest decision overrides the state’s Labor Relations Act, a law passed in 1984. Expecting a fight from union labor leaders and opponents of his right-to-work actions, he has retained a legal team headed by former federal prosecutor, Dan Webb. If necessary, the governor and  his team of attorneys will appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court to make a “declaratory judgment” of the governor’s case.

How does this affect African American labor union members? It can do insurmountable damage not only to those who have retirement pensions but also to those who have been able to make some financial gains. This includes members who can send their children to college, as well as first-time homeowners. Labor unions have provided the security blanket of resources for income growth and a better quality of life rides a great deal on the stability of labor unions.

When workers feel a certain shield of protection, fighting for a level of fairness sends a message to employees for accountability and transparency. Past corruption by some labor unions has brought a looming shadow over the positive results, but many have done their part to bring a voice to the table on behalf of their members.

For the labor unions that are still blocking the potential membership of African American and Hispanic workers, this is the time where obvious discrimination will be a calling card on the survival of these organizations. If you are part of the one percent group of wealthy and powerful stakeholders, this latest move by Rauner will not do major damage to your group and will potentially add incredible benefits to the “haves” while continuing to increase the gap between the “have nots.”

Unfortunately, it’s the other 99 percent of Illinois residents and workers who will feel the damage if the Supreme Court rules in favor of the governor’s argument. Will the rest of us fight for the quality of life that many of our people before us have fought so hard to provide in the pursuit of a better life? We’ll see.

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