SPRINGFIELD - House Democrats gave right to work a slapdown in the General Assembly on Thursday while their Republican colleagues accused of them doing little more than gathering campaign video.
Seventy-one Democrats and one Republican — Rep. Raymond Poe of Springfield — voted against a measure containing language much like Gov. Bruce Rauner has touted in his “Turnaround Illinois” agenda.
The Republican governor’s administration said it would continue negotiating “in good faith over the governor's Turnaround Agenda, including employee empowerment zones, which remains a subject of bipartisan, bicameral discussion.”
“Hopefully, House Democrats will soon stop with the political theater and turn to the serious business of negotiating a bipartisan solution to Illinois’ many challenges,” the administration added.
In House debate, Republicans drove home the proposal — an amendment by Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, to an existing bill — was not from the governor or his staff.
“This is the speaker’s language,” said GOP House Leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs. “Since we know that this is going nowhere, why are we going through this exercise today when we have bigger problems in the state of Illinois?”
By bringing right to work to the floor now, House Democrats were breaking faith with promises of participatory government and a shared effort to solve the state’s most pressing problems, Durkin said.
Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Belleville, said one of the reasons the House was looking at right-to-work was that Rauner had made it a precondition.
“Make no mistake,” Hoffman said. “Rome is burning and we are having to deal with these types of issues.”
Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago, was among a long line of Democrats who then spoke in favor of unions and against the right-to-work, or empowerment zones, measure.
“Without unions we wouldn’t have an African-American middle class,” Mitchell said. “The African-American middle class in places like Chatham (in Chicago) and Bronzeville was built on the backs of teachers and firefighters and laborers. We are standing on their shoulders to even be in this chamber today.”
Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth, rose to say he did not support right-to-work in Illinois and would vote against a Rauner-backed measure should one arrive in the House. With that said, he would not vote on the measure offered, and he took a swipe at Madigan.
“This is not about right-to-work; this is about dividing people, and it’s not fair to working men and women,” Mitchell said. “This so-called right-to-work bill is a cynical attempt by certain people who have controlled this chamber for 40 years for political power.”
Rep. Kelly Cassidy, D-Chicago, told Republicans the question deserved a public vote regardless of whether it came from the governor’s office or the speaker’s office.
“Right-to-work will never be right for Illinois — not this bill, not the next bill, not the one after that,” she said.
Rep. Joe Sosnowski, R-Rockford, argued the House was doing itself and the state a disservice by breaking out a single topic like right-to-work and not focusing on a bigger package of economic and political reforms.
“Let’s put this aside, let’s go back to the working groups, continue in the working groups and find something that, on a bipartisan basis, we can move forward on and grow Illinois.”
Rep. Reggie Phillips, R-Charleston, suggested perhaps the House ought to drop the subject entirely and instead put right to work, term limits and election remapping on the ballot for the voting public.
“Let the citizens of Illinois decide, because this group has put Illinois in the position we are in,” he said.
Rep. Jack Franks, D-Marengo, said the debate in the House was called for and superior to closed-door “working groups” meeting between select legislators and gubernatorial staff.
That procedure or process stinks, Franks said.
“We’re doing exactly what we should be doing. We’re talking about a piece of public policy in the open, where it ought to be debated,” Franks said.
Franks said the rising disparity of wealth in America concerned him and he thought right-to-work wrong for Illinois.
“We need to continue to pay our workers a living wage, to treat them with respect, to treat them with dignity,” Franks said.
“We need to put this behind us,” he continued. “This has become a distraction. Let’s vote this down; let’s’ put a stake through its heart” and move on to talk about issues such as Illinois’ pension and budget crises.
GOP floor leader Ron Sandack, R- Downers Grove, took exception to some Democrats’ comments, saying they were just gathering campaign video.
“The idea that you're’ standing up for the working class, the idea that you’re standing up for the people of Illinois, is an embarrassment,” he said.
“You’re for no one but yourself,” he told Democrats. “Oh, that hurts? I’m sorry, pardon me. I’m not going to break out the Bible; I’m not going to bring out a family history. I’m not going to talk a political campaign.”
“Have your day,” he said. “Have your day and then let’s be responsible. Let’s lead, finally; let’s do something different.”
Rep. Lou Lang, D-Skokie, gave his own impassioned response, concluding by asking Republicans: “We stand for working men and women — what do you stand for? We care for working men and women. Who do you care for?”
The measure received zero yes votes, 72 no votes and 37 votes of present. Nine members did not vote.
Mark Fitton is a reporter for Illinois News Network, a division of the Illinois Policy Institute.