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Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012 12:04 pm

The story behind the State Fair boos

If you were following the news last week, you already know that hundreds of AFSCME members packed the Illinois State Fair Director’s Lawn last Wednesday afternoon and booed pretty much everybody who tried to speak at the annual Democratic event. The only person of consequence to escape most of the hostility was Secretary of State Jesse White (who is also exempted from the traditional fan booing of politicians at Chicago baseball games). But even White received a few boos at times.

“It is a great day to be a Democrat in Springfield, Illinois!” shouted Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, the event’s emcee, over loud catcalls. “And I am happy to be here with all of you, no matter what your point of view is,” she continued, hoping to calm the angry crowd, which was far more AFSCME than Democratic.

It didn’t work.

The shouts were so loud during Gov. Pat Quinn’s brief address that nobody could listen to the speech except reporters with direct electronic access to his microphone. The governor showed some real guts by directly challenging the assembled protesters during his remarks, but it didn’t really matter because the workers (and everybody else) couldn’t hear a word of what he said.

Even President Barack Obama was heartily booed by union protesters both times his name was invoked from the stage, suggesting to some Democrats last week that many of the union protesters were actually hardcore Republicans with a political ax to grind. The fact that no AFSCME protests were planned for the following day’s Republican Day event at the State Fair was pointed to by more than one upset Democrat last week.

But there’s no doubt that the union intimidation did have an impact. Secretary White nervously joked with protesters not to “kill the messenger” when he was briefly booed. White made sure to emphatically promise the crowd that his planned closure of a Rockford facility would be addressed soon.

The fact that fewer top Democrats were willing to appear on the dais with Quinn than ever stood with former Gov. Rod Blagojevich at previous fair events also showed the power of the issue to frighten away the governor’s fellow party members. Just one congressional candidate with a serious race, Democrat David Gill, showed up. Gill was lightly booed at times, but the experience as the event’s first speaker appeared to shake him up a bit. He looked upset after his speech and nervously wiped his brow before sitting down.

Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan laughed heartily and smiled wide when his own introduction was loudly booed. Madigan chose not to speak, however. Senate President John Cullerton and Attorney General Lisa Madigan did not appear on the podium. 

Blagojevich gave AFSCME some of the best union contracts in the nation. But even he was subjected to an AFSCME State Fair protest when he attempted to make union members pay more for health insurance in 2008. Workers only briefly interrupted Blagojevich’s speech before marching out of the event. Quinn didn’t get so lucky.

A much stronger message had to be sent last week. Quinn is not only attempting to reduce union worker pensions and health benefits, but word from inside the contract negotiations is he’s demanding that every union member take a two-grade reduction in their pay, which would amount to at least a 10 percent pay cut for employees. He’s also demanding a ton of other concessions and closing several state institutions. Union members are fed up with the demands for givebacks from a guy they backed to the hilt last election.

Bill Brady slightly underperformed Mark Kirk in just about every Downstate county in 2010, almost totally because of union opposition to Brady’s anti-labor beliefs. Those slim Downstate margins (along with the pro-choice northern suburban backlash against Brady) elected Pat Quinn governor two years ago. There are a ton of Downstate public employee union members. So, he took their votes and he took their money and now they believe that he’s totally turned against them. Rank and file union anger is completely understandable in this context.

It’s little wonder that legislative Democrats didn’t want to advance a major pension reform proposal two days after the State Fair debacle. AFSCME’s tactics may have been over the top, but the union appeared to succeed, at least for now.  

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.
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