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The Battle for Democracy


John Cameron writes about Governor Rauner and the Koch brothers attacks on democracy, labor unions, and the middle class.  Mr. Cameron is the  former Executive Director of Citizen Action/Illinois, current Board member of Citizen Action and Director of Political and Community Relations for AFSCME Council 31.

The Battle for Democracy

The recent report that the Koch brothers and their affiliated organization plan to spend close to a $1 billion on the 2016 election cycle sounds ominously like a death knell for American democracy.  To be clear – what they are proposing to unleash is not about advancing “conservative values” or “free-market principles”, but rather aims at replacing the two-party system and representative government with governance by a handful of billionaires and their bottomless checkbooks.

That attack on democracy is already well-advanced in numerous state governments across the nation, notably in the band of once heavily-industrialized states from New Jersey to Wisconsin where Koch-backed governors have won in the low-turnout “off-year” elections of 2010 and 2014.  (Several, like Scott Walker and Chris Christie, are already busy burnishing their credentials for the White House in 2016.)

Among the latest to join their ranks is Bruce Rauner, the newly-sworn in governor of Illinois,  though in many ways, Rauner is more like David Koch than his fellow officeholders – he  managed to buy his election largely with his own fortune and a little help from a couple of other super-wealthy friends.  Immediately upon taking the oath of office, Rauner signaled his intent to vanquish democratic participation in state politics, denouncing the state’s public employee unions as “corrupt” because their members have contributed to other candidates for public office.

Unions are big players in Illinois politics, due primarily to the large numbers of members they represent.  Their endorsements move many voters and have a major impact on elections, and their ability to pool the small contributions by their members provides some balance to the unchecked ability of corporate interests to fund campaigns. That said, businesses that have huge interests in state laws, policies and regulation still outspend labor by more than factor of ten to one.  (Many of those same corporate interests contributed to Rauner, but he alone spent more of his own dollars this past year on his race than all the top unions combined spent during the last four governor races.)

Rauner went several steps this week in his further in his debut “State of the State “, launching a wholesale attack on Illinois unions, not just those in government, and not just around political participation.  He singled out not only state worker pay levels and contract benefits, but also paying prevailing wages for construction workers and labor agreements for infrastructure projects.  And he has renewed his support for so-called “right-to-work” laws that undermine the basis for collective bargaining in both private and public sector.

It is the same playbook that Republican governors have pursued across the Midwest.  Why the attack on unions?  Simply because they tend to back Democrats?  Hardly – this goes much deeper than partisan politics, and constitutes a fundamental assault on American democracy.

Unions are a key element of our democracy, founded on the right of citizens to peaceably assemble and petition for redress of grievances, both in the political process and at the workplace:

·         Unions bring fairness to the American economy:  By bargaining for decent wages and benefits, unions not only provide a higher standard of living for their members and their families, but for all working people. It is well-documented that states with higher union density have higher wages generally as well as better protections for all workers.  The decline of private sector union membership over the last 30 years directly correlates with the stagnation in middle class wages and the distressing rise in our nation’s income inequality. 

·         Unions give working people a voice in the political process.  In a political system increasingly dominated by wealthy donors and huge corporate expenditures, unions are one of the few vehicles that ordinary working people have to express their views and battle for their interests.  The ability of unions to organize votes, their advocacy for pro-worker policies like a higher minimum wage and affordable health care, and their capability to organize the contributions of their members are the only real offset to the power of the big money elites.  And that is why the latter are so dead-set on taking unions down: if money is speech, as Citizen United has affirmed, then eliminating union contributions in politics is clearly designed to throttle the voices of working people.

·         Unions provide dignity and security to daily life.  Perhaps this is the most fundamental democratic right that unions provide – some control for ordinary people over their everyday lives at work and at home. It not only means a paycheck that hopefully stretches far enough to pay the bills, but security of reasonable work hours and the ability to take a day off when sick, a process for justice in workplace disputes and protections from favoritism, cronyism and discrimination by the boss, and hopefully an adequate pension that will allow for a decent retirement.  And by pushing to enact such protections into law, such benefits are shared by all working people, not just those with a union card.

In short, unions allow ordinary Americans to be citizens in our democracy, not bystanders or victims.  Unfortunately, the substantial decline in union membership, particularly in private industry, has greatly reduced that democratic participation.  And that has fed a downward cycle: elected officials cater to the big money elites and pass laws favoring them, as wealth inequality grows and the middle-class suffers, ordinary voters are more alienated from the politics and fewer participate in voting, often turned off by the relentlessly negative campaigning that big money fuels, and with fewer people voting, it is even easier by the big money candidates to win office.

And that’s where Bruce Rauner and his kind come in.  A private equity deal-maker, who made his fortune off of investing other wealthy people’s money, Rauner had no apparent no political convictions, having donated to both liberal and conservative causes, and by his own admission, having voted for candidates in both parties. He also had no previous political experience and had never won an election.  But by breaking the state’s spending cap and dumping in an avalanche of his own dollars, he managed to narrowly win the Republican primary and go on to best an unpopular governor, even as the voters returned Democrats to virtually every other office in the state.


He has no mandate from the voters to go after the state’s million-plus union members and their families, but it is now clear that it is the one serious conviction in which he believes.  The fight to stop him is the battle for democracy here in Illinois, just as it has been in Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio. As events in those states have shown, as well as the chilling news out of the Koch camp, democracy is a fragile thing.