The Illinois governor’s race exemplifies a recurrent problem in this election cycle: a Democratic candidate with dreadful policies opposed by a Republican candidate unfit to capitalize. Governor J. B. Pritzker is making it impossible for his state to grow out from its legacy pension costs. But he faces Darren Bailey, a Republican unready for prime time not only because of his fervent support of President Trump but also because of his inability to articulate a compelling policy agenda.
And, as in some other races around the country, Pritzker helped choose his opponent by donating to his campaign during the Republican primary, even as he proclaimed, along with other Democrats, that Trump was a danger to the republic. Even for a state where the endemic corruption of politics generates overpowering cynicism, the farce of an election between an incumbent and an opponent chosen for the purpose of being beaten represents a new low.
Because the election result is virtually certain, the campaign has offered little discussion of the serious issues facing Illinois, including underfunded pensions and a bond rating near junk status. The only solution to the state’s fiscal difficulties is greater economic growth, but Governor Pritzker is making that impossible because the central focus of his policy agenda is to give more power to public-sector unions. The unions oppose more efficient public services, one key to growth, while commanding above-market compensation, thus making it impossible to lower taxes, another key to growth.
It’s impossible to overstate how much the Democratic Party in Illinois is beholden to public-sector unions—or how much more power it wants to give them. Last year, even Chicago’s most liberal citizens were fed up with the teachers’ union, one of the key players in forcing school closures during the pandemic. These closures have demonstrably harmed students, with low-income and minority children suffering the greatest learning losses. But Pritzker and the state legislature then turned around and rewarded the unions further. The Chicago teachers’ union has won the right to bargain on non-wage matters, giving it even more say in shaping education in accordance with its interests. And against the wishes of Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot, Pritzker did away with mayoral control of the public schools—giving it to a Board of Education over whose election the union will wield huge influence.
And that still isn’t all. Now the Democratic Party has succeeded in getting a sweeping two-sentence amendment to the Illinois Constitution on the ballot. The amendment would create a state constitutional right for employees to organize and bargain collectively through representatives of their choosing who would negotiate “wages, hours, and working conditions” and “protect their economic welfare and safety at work.” The amendment would also prohibit laws that “interfere with, negate, or diminish collective bargaining agreements, including agreements that require union membership as a condition of employment.”
The amendment is called the Right to Collective Bargaining Measure, but it should instead be called the Public Sector Union Expansion Measure. It will not affect collective bargaining by private workers. Federal law determines what workers are eligible for collective bargaining. Moreover, Illinois is not a right-to-work state; thus, private-sector unions can already require a union card as a condition of work.
But the amendment will eliminate important constraints on public-sector unions, not only costing taxpayers money but also lowering the quality of state services. For instance, Illinois law currently prevents high-level employees like supervisors and employees from forming unions. The purpose of the prohibition is to let state administrators control policy without direct union influence and hold accountable those most responsible for directing the delivery of essential services. But now all employees will have the constitutional right to unionize, and the state will lose even more control over service quality.
Up to now, some public unions in Illinois have not been permitted to bargain over all working conditions because these conditions can affect the nature of services delivered—for example, the ability to discipline bad teachers. But now all Illinois public-service unions will be able to shape their own work regimen and thus the nature of the services they provide. The constitutional amendment will cost average Illinois taxpayers $2,000 in additional taxes, according to some projections.
More than 100,000 people have already fled Illinois in the last year alone, a greater exodus than any state other than New York. In recent months, Boeing and Caterpillar, as well as a large hedge fund, Citadel, have announced plans to leave. Citadel head Ken Griffin noted that criminal threats and violence inflicted on his employees made it impossible to stay. Just this week, Chris Kempczinski, the CEO of McDonald’s, another Illinois-based company, warned about rising crime. Without a change in direction, the exodus will continue.
It should be easy for a competent politician to capitalize on palpable economic decline together with an increase in urban crime. Unfortunately, Darren Bailey is not that man. Hailing from a farm community downstate, he has denounced Chicago as a “hellhole.” Instead of making careful arguments about abortion, he has equated it with the Holocaust. He recently addressed a group of anti-Israeli activists before a map that labelled Israel “Palestine.” While he has campaigned against tax hikes, his website does not address public-sector unions, pension reform, school choice, or many other vital issues. Even if he had a sounder policy agenda, his gaffes and follies would overshadow it.
The prognosis for Illinois is thus dire. An anti-growth governor will be reelected, public-sector unions will gain even greater power, more businesses will leave, and the state will accelerate its already-steep decline.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images