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New Illinois Governor Has Unions Bristling Less Than A Month Into The Job

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Illinois has a deficit in the billions. The state also has a new governor, Republican Bruce Rauner. But before attacking the budget, he appears to be taking a page out of the political playbook of nearby governors, embracing anti-union, right-to-work laws. From member station WBEZ, Tony Arnold reports.

TONY ARNOLD, BYLINE: Truth be told, labor unions can't say they're surprised that Governor Rauner's favoring right-to-work, but perhaps voters might be. During the primary, Rauner would frequently talk of studying under other Republican governors, singling out Scott Walker in Wisconsin, Mitch Daniels in Indiana and Jeb Bush in Florida. And he won over Illinois Republicans by constantly criticizing what he called government union bosses.

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GOVERNOR BRUCE RAUNER: The government union bosses, the trial lawyers and others - they run Springfield. They bought it. They own it.

ARNOLD: But after he won the primary, Rauner hardly mentioned those government union bosses. He focused instead on cutting income taxes in Illinois's well-known budget problems. With reduced taxes, the state faces a potential $11 billion shortfall. Rauner's strategy worked. Since being sworn in, though, Rauner went back to his political time machine.

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RAUNER: These forced union dues are a critical cog in the corrupt bargain that is crushing taxpayers.

ARNOLD: That's Rauner yesterday as he signed an executive order that says some state employees like prison officers and child protection workers don't have to pay so-called fair share fees to unions out of their paycheck if they don't want to. Kent Redfield is a University of Illinois Springfield political science professor. He says Rauner's early move against unions leaves a lot of people scratching their heads.

KENT REDFIELD: I think people are surprised that he's kind of opened up this front at the same time that he's dealing with a budget crisis.

ARNOLD: Governor Rauner could be getting a jump on contract negotiations. There's also an ongoing legal fight about cutting pension benefits. But unlike Wisconsin, Indiana and states that passed right-to-work laws, Democrats control the House and Senate in Illinois. The top Senate Democrat, John Cullerton, has already previewed the labor fight against the wealthy Rauner, who spent about $38 million of his own money on his campaign.

JOHN CULLERTON: It's not bribery for union people to organize, to donate money to campaign contributors. They can do that. It's a democracy, just like Bruce Rauner can raise $20 million from two people in one day.

ARNOLD: Since Rauner took office, Democratic leaders are not aggressively fighting back, believing that there's something voters want more than a fight with unions - a better state economy. For NPR News, I'm Tony Arnold in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.