Just over a week ago, we posted about Executive Order 15-13, which attempted to move all fair-share dues for public sector employees directly under the Governor’s control into an escrow account until the courts decide whether or not fair share violates the First Amendment rights of non-card-signing workers. On Friday, Comptroller Leslie Munger, backed by the attorney general’s office, announced that she would not be following the EO.

We all breathed a sigh of relief. Munger’s decision not to enforce it indicates that Rauner’s war on unions would not be won easily. But, don’t mistake this victory the end of the war. We have no doubt that Rauner’s attacks on unions will continue.

Here’s a small sample of what he’s proposed since taking office:

  • Common sense” rules about collective bargaining that would prevent workers from negotiation over wages and benefits and make striking and work slow-downs illegal.
  • Empowerment zones,” where local voters would decide whether or not to allow fair-share unions to exist. This strategy allows Rauner to turn Illinois into a right-to-work state one municipality or county at a time, sidestepping the legislature.
  • Although EO 15-13 is not being enforced, part of it has yet to play out. Rauner has lawyer Phil Beck to bring the matter through the federal courts. In Justice Alito’s statements following the Harris v. Quinn decision last summer, he indicated that he would welcome hearing a case on fair share that would have broader implications than Harris. Depending on the path EO 15-13 takes through the courts, it might provide Alito with an opportunity to shut down fair share nationally.

Wednesday, Governor Rauner proposed a 31.5% budget cut for higher education in Illinois. GEO co-President Jen Phillis and Therese Quinn, a member of UIC-United Faculty’s Representative Assembly, had some things to say about the proposed cut. While that budget will be negotiated on in the legislature, it’s very likely UIC will be facing massive cuts in the coming year. We’ve seen before that the administration takes cuts out on faculty, staff, and students, while still providing administrators with massive salaries and six-figure merit bonuses. We don’t expect that this round of budget cuts to be any different. Less than a week before the Institute for the Humanities announced that it would be cancelling its doctoral fellowships due to budget cuts, the Board of Trustees approved a $98,400 bonus for outgoing Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares. The Board seems to have two budgets: one for education (always shrinking, always under threat) and one for administrators (always growing, always paying out).

The GEO is in a tenuous position. We can’t rely on the legislature to protect union rights, especially with the possibility of a federal court decision. We can’t rely on the legislature to protect funding for higher ed, either: budget cuts are coming.

So, what do we do? We organize.

The end of fair share, whether it comes this year or in ten years, will have less impact on the GEO if we have a strong majority of card-signing, active members. It will be harder for the administration to use graduate employees to balance their budget if we’re a strong union. If being in a union–which gives you the right to negotiate your wages and benefits, improve your working conditions, and ensure the contract is enforced–matters to you, then it’s time to get involved. Here’s how:

  1. Attend one of GEO’s Rauner Lunches. Staff and members will be on hand to run through the Governor’s proposals, what they mean for GEO, and what they indicate about our future. Four are currently planned; if you’d like to host one in your department or building, contact staff@uic-geo.net
    1. University Hall:  Wednesday, February 25th 12:30-1:30 p.m., UH 1550 (Facebook invite here).
    2. Latino Cultural Center:  Friday, February 27th 12-1 p.m., Latino Cultural Center (Facebook invite here).
  2. Talk to your colleagues. Tell them why you’re an active union member and why it matters to you. Ask them what they’re worried about at work: are their offices and labs safe? Are they asked to work more hours or different duties than assigned? Are their wages enough to cover the fees charged by the university? If you want some training on how to talk to colleagues, contact organizing@uic-geo.net.
  3. Join the joint Stewards’ Council/Organizing Committee. Our stewards and organizing team are the eyes and ears of the union. They let us know when something’s amiss, and let our members know what’s going on at GEO HQ. Our next meeting is Wednesday, March 4th at 5PM, in the GEO Offices.

Rauner’s war on unions is just beginning. Let’s meet him full-force.


Yesterday, Governor Bruce Rauner signed Executive Order 15-13, which makes it illegal for public sector unions to collect dues from fair share members. Executive Order 15-13 covers workers employed by state agencies directly under Rauner’s control, such as correctional officers, child protective service workers, and those who care for veterans and the disabled. Executive Order 15-13 does not impact educational workers–which means GEO, UIC-UF, and Illinois teachers are not covered by this order.

UPDATE:  According to the Chicago Sun-Times, Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger will not be following the Executive Order, refusing to set aside “fair share dues” without a court order.  Attorney General Lisa Madigan agrees with the Comptroller’s decision, stating that the fair share fees are constitutional under Illinois law.  You can read more here.

What is “fair share”?

“Fair share” is the name given to workers who are represented by a union and who are covered by the union contract, but who have not signed a membership card. The logic behind fair share is that, since all workers who work under a union contract benefit from the union’s work in negotiations and in protecting the workers, they should contribute dues to the union. Amy Livingston, GEO staff, wrote a piece explaining how fair share works and how Harris v. Quinn, last summer’s Supreme Court case would affect GEO that also offers a more detailed and nuanced definition of the term.

Why does Rauner want to get rid of it?

Rauner has argued that because state unions negotiate with state officials, any union negotiation is political speech. Under that logic, compelling fair share members to pay dues violates their First Amendment rights. It is important to note that in Illinois, fair share dues cannot be spent on campaign contributions, political activities, or on any other expense that would traditionally be considered “political speech.” Rauner’s argument depends on a novel and distorted interpretation of what constitutes “political speech” developed and promoted by the National Right to Work Foundation and other anti-union organizations.

What do unions do with dues?

Union dues pay for a number of things: staffers help members organize, draft contract language, and guide us through legal issues (such as this one). Unions also rely on lawyers to help win grievance cases. We have 1400 members; imagine the legal costs for larger unions! A large part of every union’s budget is paid to our parent union (IFT) who provides us with innumerable services: legal protection, training, support, and so on. With the end of fair share, much of the union’s time will be taken up getting members to sign cards and pay dues; much less can be devoted to protecting workers and members of the community. It’s possible your contact with the GEO has been at our socials and lunches–so it’s easy to think we spend dues on food and drink. But this is a tiny part of our budget.

What does EO 15-13  mean for GEO?

Fortunately, nothing yet. But, it does gives us a clue as to what Rauner–whose anti-union rhetoric was central to his campaign–might be planning. While it seems unlikely that EO 15-13 will be upheld, his action (along with his recent proposal suggesting that state workers’ collective bargaining rights be massively curtailed) indicates that he’s coming hard after labor unions.

Okay, so what happens if Rauner signs an EO that strips the GEO and other teachers’ unions of their fair share rights?

Well, the work of the union will change radically. Our staff and active members’ time will be taken up collecting signatures and dues, not working grievance cases, fighting to improve and enforce our contract, and having less time overall to focus on members’ concerns and working conditions. It will change how the union does business. Right now, we will focus on increasing the number of card-signing members we have so that the executive order will have a minimum impact on our budget.

So, what can I do?

You can do three things:

  1. If you haven’t already, sign a card! If you aren’t sure, sign another! Email us at geo@uic-geo.net so we can bring you a membership card or answer any questions you might have.
  2. Ask your colleagues to sign cards, too!
  3. Attend the Organizing/Stewards Meeting Wednesday at 4PM in the GEO office (815 W. Van Buren Suite 203 above Giordano’s) to learn how to get cards signed to protect your union!

This is an “all hands on deck” moment, similar to the end of fair share in Wisconsin in 2011. Now is the time to join your union and defend your rights as workers!

Harris v. Quinn: the Beginning of the End of Public Sector Unions?

Last summer, the Supreme Court issued a decision in favor of the plaintiff in Harris v. Quinn, a case that originated in Illinois but could have massive implications for unions across the nation. This article in the Sun-Times (written before the decision) gives a nice summary of the facts of the case, but I will re-summarize them here: SEIU represented home health care workers in collective bargaining and contract enforcement in the State of Illinois. All workers represented by SEIU paid  “fair share” fees whether or not they elected to join the union. The plaintiff in this case, Pamela Harris, sued the state because she objected to being compelled to pay “fair share” fees. As the Sun-Times article notes, “fair share” fees were approximately two-thirds of the amount of member dues, and roughly 60% of the home health care workers represented by SEIU chose to join the union. Harris was represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to the “right” of employers to exploit workers without any union or government interference.

The legal team for the plaintiff argued that Illinois’ “fair share” system for public unions is a violation of workers’ First Amendment rights. How? First, it’s useful to know more about the “fair share” system. In states with “fair share” provisions, public sector unions can collect fees from all of the workers represented by the union and covered by the union’s contract, whether or not a worker chooses to join the union. The idea behind “fair share” laws is that everyone who benefits from the union and its contract must pay their “fair share.” There are strict regulations about what unions can do with these “fair share” fees: they must be used for contract negotiation and enforcement, not for political campaigns or lobbying efforts. Public sector unions are free to use members’ dues for political speech because members are voluntarily committing their money to the union for that purpose, but non-member (or “fair share” member) fees are exclusively available to unions for non-political purposes.

In Harris, the plaintiff’s legal counsel challenged the Court’s previous interpretation of what constitutes political speech. They argued that any discussion between a private organization and the state about how the state will allocate funds, for example, is political speech (a petition to the government to influence public policy). This means that when a union (private organization) is bargaining with a public employer (the state) over workers’ wages and benefits, they are engaging in political speech. As a matter of fact, any interaction that a public sector union has with a state-funded employer could constitute political speech. The First Amendment protects individuals from being compelled by the state to support political speech. Thus, on this interpretation of what counts as political speech, “fair share” clauses violate the First Amendment rights of non-members.

If the Supreme Court had accepted the plaintiff’s interpretation entirely, “fair share” would have come to an end across the United States. States with “fair share” provisions like Illinois would have plunged into the right-to-work abyss currently inhabited primarily by the low-wage South. Public sector unionism – the last stronghold of labor in the U.S. – would have faced the challenges they’ve faced in Wisconsin and Michigan recently, only on a national scale. This would be a devastating blow to the rights of workers, especially in high-turnover sectors like graduate employment. Ask your friends and colleagues in graduate school at public universities in the South about their working conditions. When I left graduate school at an urban public university in Tennessee in 2009, I made $1,100 per month working a 75% assistantship (30 hours/week). That’s just over $9/hour before taxes. My employer did not provide health insurance.

The Court’s opinion, written by Justice Alito, found for the plaintiff: a 5-4 majority of justices agreed with Harris’ argument that home health care workers should never have been considered state employees in the first place and consequently they did not have a right to enter into collective bargaining with the state. This was a disastrous decision for the home health care workers represented by SEIU in Illinois but most other unionized workers seem to have escaped unscathed. According to Justice Alito, since the home health care workers should never have been unionized in the first place, the Court was unable to consider the merits of the other, larger question: are “fair share” deductions a violation of workers’ First Amendment rights? Justice Alito made it clear that he believes “fair share” fees are such a violation and he all but invited a future plaintiff to give the Court the occasion to rule against “fair share” fees nationwide. Now that the Court has indicated a willingness – perhaps even an eagerness – to review the legality of “fair share” per se, the National Right to Work Legal Defense Fund and its allies will be further emboldened to bring cases before the Court to end “fair share”. This does not bode well for unionized workers and our families. We should all be watching nervously to see whether or not the Supreme Court will dismantle one of the remaining vestiges of worker power in the United States. Unionized workers in Illinois have additional reason to worry: our new governor, Bruce Rauner, is an outspoken opponent of “fair share” laws and is reportedly already proposing “right-to-work” zones as a means of dismantling “fair share” in parts of our state. It might be time to consult our allies in Wisconsin and elsewhere to learn about organizing in a post-”fair share” landscape.

Amy Livingston
GEO Staff Organizer