Think tank: AFSCME an '800-pound gorilla' that bullies state, taxpayers
Terming the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) an “800-pound gorilla at the negotiating table,” the Illinois Policy Institute recently examined the relationship between the union and Illinois workers, suggesting that the balance of power tends to tilt toward the union.
The institute noted that AFSCME has been involved in contract negotiations with Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner for nearly two years.
In its recently released report, the institute explained how unions have become disproportionately powerful in Illinois — particularly in the context of contract negotiations. The document is especially useful because the Illinois Labor Relations Board recently ruled that talks have reached an impasse.
Mailee Smith, a labor expert at the institute, is the author of the new report, “AFSCME: The 800-pound gorilla at the negotiating table.” The report spotlights the tendency of government service providers to create monopolies; the lack of competitive limits on AFSCME’s demands; the influence of political contributions; and contractual rules that force taxpayers to shoulder the burden for union work.
Smith's report also explains just how AFSCME became a metaphorical monster, citing “clear demonstrations of AFSCME’s heavy-handed lobbying in the legislature.”
Smith says taxpayers are actually a player in these talks.
“AFSCME leadership tries to portray itself as the victim in negotiations with the state, but the reality is the union is a power player at the negotiating table," Smith said. "When the parties negotiate, it is not AFSCME vs. the governor – it's AFSCME vs. state taxpayers. And taxpayers hold significantly less power than AFSCME. The entire public-sector collective-bargaining process is tilted decidedly against taxpayers.”
Compared with national figures, unionized Illinois state government workers are already among the highest compensated state employees (adjusted for cost of living). AFSCME workers enjoy unparalleled benefits — including health and retirement perks that are, again, subsidized by taxpayers. Union workers averaged $63,000 in 2015 salary, while typical private-sector workers netted $32,000 — just over half that of unionized staffers.
Yet AFSCME is insisting on another $3 billion to allow for raises and increased benefits at the same time that Illinois strains to deal with $111 billion in unfunded pension debt and $9 billion in unpaid bills.
Smith said AFSCME’s unprecedented dominance arose from a unique set of circumstances. She contrasted different governors’ administrations and their respective relationships — and negotiation histories — with unions, drawing conclusions from hard data and including the information graphically in the report.
Additionally, her report said approximately two-thirds of current Illinois legislators, both senators and representatives, actually have received campaign contributions directly from the federation. Whereas state law generally forbids many businesses from donating to an incumbent’s campaign, a loophole allows unions to do so.
Thus, in 2016, AFSCME had donated more than $1.4 million to candidates as of late September.
“The cycle of political contributions and political ‘favors’ is fairly easy to follow,” Smith said. “AFSCME contributes considerable amounts of money to a gubernatorial candidate. Once elected, that governor sits across the table from AFSCME in contract negotiations, supposedly representing ‘the people.’ But that governor is beholden to AFSCME and its contributions for his position, and the governor implements labor policies or contract provisions that benefit AFSCME. AFSCME contributes more money, and the cycle continues.”
Smith noted that Rauner was elected without any contributions from AFSCME. Hence, with no strings previously attached, AFSCME balks at compromising on any new contract.
The report also suggests that the powerful union successfully increases its influence through the collective-bargaining process itself. For example, contract provisions let employees take paid time off from state business for union work. The state also must supply meeting rooms for union needs, use of state phones and email access. Thus, taxpayers essentially are paying state workers to use state resources at the expense of taxpayers.
“That means the state – taxpayers – is paying employees to work against the state,” she said. “The absurdity of such provisions is obvious when applied to the private sector.”
Smith’s analysis examines additional regulations and contractual guidelines that allow the imbalance to continue. Work absences and leave time, facilities, personnel matters and more all come under scrutiny in the Illinois Policy Institute's report.
“AFSCME’s power in Illinois cannot be overstated,” Smith said, adding that the tendency of collective bargaining to favor unions and the union’s record of campaign contributions — coupled with its consistent pressuring of lawmakers and its own allegedly self-serving contract rules — ultimately have created the “800-pound gorilla,” with taxpayers at its mercy.