Governor Bruce Rauner has proposed introducing employee empowerment zones in Illinois and it has not been received with open arms by unions or legislators around the state. While the Governor initially proposed changing Illinois, known as a union stronghold, into a right to work state, he has settled on empowerment zones.
Governor Rauner says, “Employee empowerment zones will allow Illinois to better compete with employment-flexible states, like Indiana. The Turnaround Agenda empowers local voters and communities to decide if they should be open or closed shop, and these zones will help attract businesses, which will create jobs, particularly in areas with high unemployment.”
It would also exploit historic tensions between the trade unions and the Black community, which has long-held that the unions are barriers to Black employment in Black communities.
Trade unions, formed after slavery were initially created for workers rights, but also to prevent skilled slaves from taking jobs from White workers. Over time, as Blacks migrated North and White businessmen sought to break strikes, they often employed Black “scabs” who were willing to accept the verbal and often physical abuse of White union members and expendable to the White business owners.
Concurrently, Black leaders like A. Phillip Randolph eventually began organizing groups like the Pullman Porters who advocated specifically for Black workers. Eventually, Black unions were integrated into larger White unions with their presence being relegated to Black “caucuses.”
The trade unions, which traditionally have the highest paid remain primarily dominated by White ethnic men in membership and leadership, and receive complaints from legislators and community activists alike for their lack of diversity. Conversely, low wage Black and minority workers dominate the service unions, with “liberal” White leadership making most policy decisions. Both groups say that right to work laws are bad for working middle class families, pointing to a Public Policy Polling report that states, “55% of voters are resistant to right to work laws.”
But with a Black unemployment rate of almost 25% in Chicago, and projected to be almost 14% statewide, the question becomes what is the benefit of employee empowerment zones for Black community? Black community activists and Black legislators alike agree that while unions provide great jobs and wages, they are the barrier to Blacks accessing those great jobs and wages. “Right to work zones are needed to allow the people who have been left out to participate in rebuilding their own communities. Then, once the community is rebuilt they want us to leave,” stated community activist and organizer of Voice Of The Ex-offender (VOTE).
The unions counter with the fact that while there are opportunities for growth, Black people are not applying to become part of the trade unions. In response, they have increased their outreach efforts. “One of the biggest challenges we find it that most people do not know the process of how to find the job. Once a person gets in the program, they can be as successful as they want to be, “ said IBEW Local 134 official Mario Miller.
State Representative Ken Dunkin, counters, “We have to hold these unions accountable. They’ve got to explain to our community why they should not have the right to work. “
Right to work zones will most likely be voted on this week, will fail miserably, and the unions will be able to claim a big victory against the Governor. What remains to be seen is how this vote plays out in the upcoming Statehouse elections. If the Black unemployment rates remain disproportionately high and social services continue to get cut, many of the same Black legislators who will vote against the right to work zone legislation will have to explain to their constituencies why they voted for unions and against their right to work. That will be difficult to sell to unemployed Blacks.