With the last procedural hurdles cleared, Senate Bill 1556, also known as the “management” bill, will be presented to Gov. Pat Quinn and is expected to receive his signature in the near future. This new law should not be oversold it affects a fairly modest number of state employees, and there are indications that the governor will not make the most of the opportunity it presents him. But enacting this legislation could prove to be a turning point in Illinois and, for once, a turn in the right direction.
SB 1556 cleans up a mess created under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, when fairly high-ranking staff in the executive branch were allowed to unionize. The newly unionized included political appointees and managerial staff who were expected to assist the governor in advancing his own agenda. This was very unusual. The National Labor Relations Act and most state laws exempt managers and supervisors from unionization. This was done for a very basic reason: managers are expected to supervise other workers on behalf of the employer; managers should be as accountable to their own superiors as possible.
When management itself is unionized, union officials can use their role as bargainers to disrupt management, which causes an unacceptable state of affairs. This distinction between managers and unionized workers becomes even more important in government, where the final authority is supposed to be the people, and managers are likely to be making public policy. If the governor is going to be effective, he needs to be able to rely on his appointees to support his policies and provide him with accurate and timely information, something that is more likely to happen when those appointees are directly accountable to him. By removing managers and supervisors from unions, SB 1556 will give Quinn, and future governors, better control over the executive branch.
This new law will allow the governor to set aside 3,580 positions as exempt from unionization about one-tenth of the state’s workforce. Many, but not all of the workers to be designated by the governor were recently unionized. And there are indications that Quinn agreed not to issue as many exemptions as the law allows, weakening the law’s impact. There will be no dramatic reduction in union membership. Illinois will still face difficult debates over pensions, and there is still the challenge of negotiating a contract with American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which could result in an unprecedented and devastating state employee strike.
But what the new law does do is set a valuable precedent. There is now a bipartisan consensus that unionization is not appropriate for at least some government employees, and that when the interests of unions are in conflict with the public interest, it is good government, not union power, that must prevail. Government union power has paralyzed the state. That power may be starting to recede.