SPRINGFIELD — Unity proved to be an elusive commodity for Democrats at their day at the Illinois State Fair today as the party’s key organized labor support bashed Gov. Pat Quinn for his efforts to reform public employee pensions, forego pay raises and close state facilities.
The complaints from the state AFL-CIOand top public employees unions — including a rolling billboard that greeted Democrats outside their traditional county chairmen’s breakfast — symbolized the political forces surrounding a special legislative session set for Friday on pension reform.
“We are united in calling on the governor to treat employees fairly and to recognize the importance of the vital services they provide,” said Michael Carrigan, president of the stateAFL-CIO.
“We are extremely disturbed that at a time when collective bargaining rights for public employees are under attack by a number of Republican governors, here in Illinois we have a Democratic governor who is undermining fundamental collective bargaining rights for public employees,” Carrigan said.
Other union leaders simply said their members had no faith in Quinn.
Union protesters gathered around Quinn at the Pork Pavilion and hundreds marched behind him to the site of the afternoon's speeches, shouting, "Gov. Quinn, keep your word."
Quinn's arrival was greeted with loud boos and movement from protesters wearing green AFSCME shirts that read, "Pensions are a promise" and "Governor Quinn's Illinois, the new Wisconsin." They also waved signs saying, "Respect Illinois Workers" and shouted "Honor union contracts," drowning out a country singer on stage.
With the Nov. 6 election only weeks away and all 177 seats in the General Assembly up for election after the once-every-decade redrawing of political boundaries, Democrats are looking to extend their majorities in the House and Senate. But many lawmakers are fearful that a massive overhaul of the state’s pension systems — the most underfunded in the nation — would spark a union backlash.
“People from organized labor are representing their people and they ought to do that and we ought to be busy about improving the fiscal condition of the state of Illinois,” said House Speaker Michael Madigan, the powerful Southwest Side lawmaker who also chairs the state Democratic Party. “It’s just a natural conflict. It’s going to be there. I don’t think there’s any long-term adverse implications to come out of it.”
Yet Madigan also contended that any progress in the legislature on approving a comprehensive pension reform proposal depended upon Quinn and the governor’s talks with House GOP leader Tom Cross of Oswego. Cross already has rejected a limited Senate-passed plan that would alter pension funding for state workers and lawmakers and prefers a more expansive plan that includes teachers and higher education workers.
But Quinn seemed unaware that Madigan had placed the onus on the governor to try to deliver votes from Cross and minority Republicans in speaking with reporters. Expected to meet with Cross on Friday before lawmakers convene, Quinn said he was hopeful Madigan and Cross would each provide 30 votes — creating the combined 60 needed to pass legislation — on a comprehensive reform proposal.
“I think each of the leaders is waiting for the other to move forward and I hope we can, in the next couple of days, get everybody to jump in the water at the same time, hold hands and let’s go together,” Quinn said. “We cannot be running in place, playing politics before the election. We’ve got to do what’s right on policy.”
Quinn said he understood he was the target of criticism of public employee unions, but contended his efforts had the support of a vast majority of Illinois voters.
“We’re going to reform the pensions and I know some of the state workers don’t like that but they’re going to have to accept what the voters, I think, at large want,” he said.
Speaking to hundreds of Democrats gathered in Springfield for the fair, Quinn sought to rally support for candidates from home-state President Barack Obama on down the ballot in the fall. But the loquacious governor also delivered a big blooper.
“Obama’s dead and the American auto industry is alive,” Quinn said before correcting himself to say “Osama bin Laden” is dead. “Guess I won’t use that one again,” the governor said.