Traverse City Record-Eagle

Business

November 5, 2013

Labor holds strong despite blows

CHICAGO (AP) — Across the middle of the country, organized labor has taken one hit after another in places that were once union strongholds: Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana, where workers lost bargaining power and saw their ranks shrink, leaving them weaker than almost any time in the past century.

The notable exception is Illinois. Here, it’s almost as though the Great Recession and the Republican resurgence of 2010 never happened. Public employees still have their defined-benefit pensions. Unions still negotiate and collect dues. And little public blame has been heaped on labor for the state’s financial problems.

But the ability of Illinois unions to withstand the pressures that broke down their colleagues elsewhere is back on display this week as lawmakers try for the umpteenth time to confront the nearly $100 billion shortfall in the public-employee pension system, the largest in the nation.

The Legislature is under pressure to consider slashing pension benefits or requiring employees to contribute more to their own retirement funds or to retire at a later age. It’s the kind of overhaul most states did several years ago to ease the crushing weight of growing obligations to retirees, combined with declining revenue.

Or, lawmakers might do what they’ve done multiple times before: nothing.

The outcome could determine whether Illinois’ dismal finances get a long-delayed fix or whether one of labor’s toughest redoubts reaffirms its power by holding off any major changes in benefits.

“Whether you like that outcome or not, you have to say ‘That’s an organization that has some political strength, and that uses it,’” said Robert Bruno, a professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations at the University of Illinois.

Much of labor’s success here, no doubt, derives from the fact that President Barack Obama’s home state is a citadel for Democrats who have long enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with unions.

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