As Illinois moves closer and closer to the fiscal cliff, the next story to watch is the outcome of three days of workplace protests planned by the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Leadership Council 31. The protests are directed at the state of Illinois and Gov. Pat Quinn, and are expected to include lunchtime picketing, displays of signs and wearing of green union garb. The protests, intended to show solidarity and commitment by state employees, were supposed to begin yesterday. As of this morning there is no indication that the protests have had any significant effect, but it is still early in the campaign and the union probably will schedule its most dramatic displays for tomorrow.
The union protests deserve careful attention because they are a useful barometer of union support among state workers. A strike by so many state employees is unprecedented. At this point, neither worker polls nor prior history sheds much light on how this strike will play out, and neither the state nor AFSCME officials can be certain of how workers will respond to a call for a walkout. It would be a terrible embarrassment for AFSCME to call a strike that is not honored by its members, or even hold a strike authorization vote that fails. Union officials will want to be sure that rank-and-file state employees will take part enthusiastically.
My guess is that they will, moving the state one step closer to a strike. Government employees have witnessed the results of the Chicago Teachers Union strike and seen the tactic pay off. AFSCME will be motivated by the governor’s sharp (but necessary) reductions in pay and benefits. This is unfortunate, because the prospect of a strike will only complicate the process of rightsizing state government and public employee compensation. AFSCME, like most government employee unions, has actually become a retrograde force in Illinois politics, using its considerable power to block even modest changes, like closing down underused prisons. It would be best for all, including state employees, if the protests fizzle. The less elected officials are forced to play “mother may I” with government unions, the better.