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In blue state Illinois, can union-curbing measures by GOP governor succeed?

Gov. Bruce Rauner has announced an executive order to limit dues owed to public-sector labor unions by nonmembers. But Democratic lawmakers could have the power to block the move.

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    Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks to reporters during a news conference in his office at the Illinois State Capitol, Feb. 9, in Springfield, Ill.
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Less than a month after taking office, Gov. Bruce Rauner (R) of Illinois took a first swipe at public-sector labor unions Monday when he announced an executive order that would curb dues owed to them by nonmembers. Acknowledging that his actions would ignite a protracted legal battle with labor organizations, the governor said he filed a preemptive lawsuit in federal court in Chicago to have his move declared legal.

Bypassing the state legislature to push through a controversial policy change has proved successful for other state governors. Former Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) of Indiana passed a collective bargaining bill in 2005 through executive power, for example.

However, unlike other Republican governors in the Midwest who have aggressively targeted labor unions, Governor Rauner is in the unique position of trying to make such changes in a state where Democrats rule both chambers of the legislature by wide margins and they have the power to overturn his order. Senate president John Cullerton (D) released a brief statement saying that his “legal staff is reviewing” Rauner’s order.

Some say Rauner, a former private-equity investor who is the state’s first Republican governor in 12 years, is taking on unions early in his term to play to his party base. With his move, he can show supporters he put forth his best effort.

“He would never get this through the legislature, so it raises a lot of questions why is he wasting his political capital on this making enemies. So I suspect he is showing his base he is trying to do something,” says David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.

According to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 24 states have so-called right-to-work laws, which allow don't allow businesses to require workers to join a labor union. In the upper Midwest, Iowa, Michigan, and Indiana are right-to-work states.

Even though Rauner is characterizing his proposal as right-to-work, he is not calling it that outright because it is limited to public-sector unions. Instead, he is focusing on “fair share” fees collected by unions from nonmembers, and he says unions are violating the US Constitution because the fees are used for political purposes. A report published Monday by the Illinois Policy Institute, a fiscally conservative think tank, found that the state’s five largest public unions spent a combined $46 million on political campaigns over the past 12 years.

“Forced union dues are a critical cog in the corrupt bargain that is crushing taxpayers. Government union bargaining and government union political activity are inexorably linked,” Rauner said in a statement. “An employee who is forced to pay unfair share dues is being forced to fund political activity with which they disagree. That is a clear violation of First Amendment rights – and something that, as governor, I am duty-bound to correct.”

Public-sector unions immediately described Rauner’s proposal as illegal. “Perhaps as a private equity CEO Rauner was accustomed to ignoring legal and ethical standards, but Illinois is still a democracy and its laws have meanings,” said Roberta Lynch, executive director of the state chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, in a statement. The organization says about 42,000 state workers are represented by unions.

Last week, Rauner also addressed private-sector unions, saying he wanted what he called “empowerment zones” throughout Illinois, where voters could decide if they want those unions to require workers to pay dues.

Labor groups say that right-to-work laws lead to lower wages and a decrease in union membership, while pro-business groups argue that they lead to a more thriving climate for job growth and economic development.

Michigan became the 24th right-to-work state in 2012, and since then, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., a government-run group, the state has become more desirable for companies wanting to do business there. When the American Economic Development Institute named Michigan the most-improved state in 2014, advancing 21 spots to No. 18, the organization said right-to-work played a key role.

Conversely, according to data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers represented by unions in Michigan dropped 4 percent in 2014 from a year earlier, and overall, the state suffered a nearly 4 percent loss in jobs.

Illinois has emerged as a “crown jewel” for Republicans because it is surrounded by states where right-to-work and similar legislation has easily passed statehouses in recent years.

“Which makes Illinois a target is because it has this high level of union membership and a real active political agenda,” says Robert Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “So clearly Illinois is now an important linchpin to how Republicans see the Great Lakes emerging both economically and politically, and [Rauner’s election] has created this opportunity to go on the offensive.”

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