Illinois Public Media News
Wisconsin's public workers no longer have collective bargaining rights. Lawmakers stripped them away Thursday, and the move's causing a firestorm in pro-labor circles. But Illinois' neighbor to the north isn't the only one seeing an epic battle over workers rights.
Thousands of union members flooded streets outside the Indiana Statehouse Thursday. The demonstrators hoped to stop measures they fear are worse than those in Wisconsin.
It's usually a two hour drive from the Northwest Indiana city of Portage to Indianapolis. Yesterday morning, I-65 was covered in snow, so the trip was more like a slick, three-hour Odyssey. This is did not dampen the spirits of a busload of steelworkers when they arrived at the Indiana Statehouse.
The vice president of Local 6787, Pete Trinidad, said he came down to lend his voice. "We disagree with what our politicians are doing down here. And if we don't come down and have our voice heard then they are going to say, 'Well, you didn't say anything so we just went ahead and did it.' We didn't want that to happen."
In some ways - the stakes are higher for organized labor in Indiana than they are in Wisconsin. You see, the issue of public workers' collective bargaining rights is old-hat in the Hoosier state. Indiana's Republican governor, Mitch Daniels, stripped state workers of such rights back in 2005.
GOP legislators took control of both chambers this year - and they took their own swipe at organized labor. The first bill Republicans introduced this session would strip public school teachers of most collective bargaining rights. Another bill would make Indiana a so-called right to work state. Basically, companies would no longer require union membership as a condition of employment.
Republicans say this would make Indiana more economically competitive. Union member Pete Trinidad doesn't don't by it, so he took part in yesterday's demonstration, one of the largest in Indiana's history. Trinidad says the GOP's first bill targeted teachers - but it won't stop there. "They try to choose on spot and start a crack and the crack goes all the way across. We can't do that. We're all together in this."
Dozens of speakers addressed the crowd that lined up near the Indiana Statehouse. And despite the chilly temps, chanting continued for hours.
But inside the Capitol - things were quiet. One reason is that House Democrats have boycotted the past three weeks of this session. They don't have enough votes to stop the GOP's agenda, but without Democrats, the House can't do its work because there's no quorum.
But a Senate Democrat from was there - eager to take jabs at Republicans.
"What happened in Wisconsin yesterday was terrible," said Lonnie Randolph, a veteran Democratic state senator from East Chicago. "Indiana, Wisconsin, Ohio. That's not by chance all this is happening. If they weaken labor, they weaken the biggest contributor and supporter of the Democratic party."
Randolph saw the crowd outside. He says Republicans are overreaching.
"They've waken up a sleeping giant in my opinion," Randolph continued. "The people that came down here today 20,000-plus, these are just average, everyday people with families. They're just barely making it from pay check to pay check. And what you're doing you're hitting them in the pocket. This is going to go on until the people get some relief."
It turns out the pro-union demonstrators were preaching to the converted Thursday, because Republican leaders weren't in the Indiana Capitol, either. They called the day off. Not because of the demonstration - but because the Big Ten basketball tournament is in town and they didn't want to deal with a congested downtown Indy.
Maybe it's a fitting demonstration of their confidence they'll prevail. Brian Bosma, the House Majority's Republican leader, said as much in recent days. "There's always room for compromise. I'm not going to concede to a list of demands. I'm not conceding to that. I'm never going to concede to that particularly when it's only 37 people telling the remaining 63 what to do."
Bosma said pro-union Democrats are missing something: Republicans have power - and they ought to. They got the most votes in this historically Republican-leaning state.
So, Bosma feels the GOP can wait things out, long after the union noise dies down.
Though ... that could take a while - unions plan more demonstrations for next week..
(Photo by Michael Puente/IPR)
A Champaign group committed to fair and reasonably priced health care has filed a complaint against its own insurance carrier.
Champaign County Health Care Consumers says premiums for its five staff members have gone up about 25-percent on average over the last 4 years. Executive Director Claudia Lenhoff said the group's complaint before the Illinois Department of Insurance against PersonalCare also contends the provider is discriminating based on age and gender. Lenhoff said when contacting the company, she's told that the higher premiums are based on usage.
"You see the higher charges for females compared to males, and they usually say that that's because women are going to have more medical expenses, if they're going to have babies and so on," Lenhoff said. "All the women on staff have never had any children. That doesn't effect our usage. And so, we think that these are pricing schemes that PersonalCare has been able to get away with."
Lenhoff said the higher rates have put her organization in financial jeopardy. The group's Allison Jones says her employer is now paying more than $520 month for her coverage.
"I really feel like they're destabilizing my job," she said. "They're putting my job at risk. I see the numbers and I know how much the salary is for someone who works in a non-profit. I feel really greatly that 100% of my insurance premium is paid for. But I know that's just a ticking time bomb. It's not going to last forever."
Meawhile, Lenhoff said her staff is getting a number of calls from others in the community also using PersonalCare whose rates have gone up considerably. She says this and other complaints will prompt the Department of Insurance to contact insurance companies, and let them know they're monitoring their rate increases. And a bill going before an Illinois House committee next week would give that department review authority over rates. Urbana Democrat Naomi Jakobsson is a co-sponsor.
Wisconsin lawmakers voted Thursday to strip nearly all collective bargaining rights from the state's public workers, ending a heated standoff over labor rights and delivering a key victory to Republicans who have targeted unions in efforts to slash government spending nationwide.
The state's Assembly passed Gov. Scott Walker's explosive proposal 53-42 without any Democratic support and four no votes from the GOP. Protesters in the gallery erupted into screams of "Shame! Shame! Shame!" as Republican lawmakers filed out of the chamber and into the speaker's office.
The state's Senate used a procedural move to bypass missing Democrats and move the measure forward Wednesday night, meaning the plan that delivers one of the strongest blows to union power in years now requires only Walker's signature to take effect.
He says he'll sign the measure, which he introduced to plug a $137 million budget shortfall, as quickly as possible - which could be as early as Thursday.
"We were willing to talk, we were willing to work, but in the end at some point the public wants us to move forward," Walker said before the Assembly's vote.
Walker's plan has touched off a national debate over labor rights for public employees and its implementation would be a key victory for Republicans, many of whom have targeted unions amid efforts to slash government spending. Similar bargaining restrictions are making their way through Ohio's Legislature and several other states are debating measures to curb union rights in smaller doses.
In Wisconsin, the proposal has drawn tens of thousands of protesters to the state Capitol for weeks of demonstrations and led 14 Senate Democrats to flee to Illinois to prevent that chamber from having enough members present to pass a plan containing spending provisions.
But a special committee of lawmakers from the Senate and Assembly voted Wednesday to take all spending measures out of the legislation and the full Senate approved it minutes later, setting up Thursday's vote in the Assembly.
Walker has repeatedly argued that collective bargaining is a budget issue, because his proposed changes would give local governments the flexibility to confront the budget cuts needed to close the state's $3.6 billion deficit. He has said without the changes, he may have needed to lay off 1,500 state workers and make other cuts to balance the budget.
The measure forbids most government workers from collectively bargaining for wage increases beyond the rate of inflation unless approved by referendum. It also requires public workers to pay more toward their pensions and double their health insurance contribution, a combination equivalent to an 8 percent pay cut for the average worker.
Police and firefighters are exempt.
UI Holds Forum on Proposed Cuts to Institute of Aviation
The University of Illinois held a public forum Tuesday night to get feedback about a budget recommendation to break up the 65-year-old Institute of Aviation.
Two candidates for Danville mayor contend they were each offered a job by opponent Jim McMahon in exchange for giving up their campaigns.
Rickey Williams and David Quick both say they were offered the position of Vermilion county treasurer. Quick tells the Danville Commercial-News he was offered the job by McMahon himself, while Williams says it came through a supporter of the County Board Chairman, and he wasn't sure if McMahon was aware of it himself.
Williams says he has no intention of leaving the race, and has integrity.
"I'm not for sale. Even when I was on the (Danville) city council, someone attempted to bribe me about a liquor license," he said. "I made that public knowledge then. It's against everything I stand for as a person. We need somebody who's going to be forthright, and have the best interests of the people at heart. And backroom deals are not the way to represent the people's voice."
McMahon said Williams' comments make no sense, when considering that County Treasurer Sue Stine was just re-elected to office and does a good job. McMahon admitted that he suggested to Quick that he drop his campaign and team up with him, since their campaigns have similar messages regarding higher taxes, although both names would still appear on the ballot.
"Any time you have bad publicity it could damage your campaign," McMahon said. "But I hope people understand and would rise above this. This is a business decision, trying to help a businessman who basically was in 4th place, to come up and join my team so we could be together as committee traveling forward. What more can you ask for when you got fourth and first working together?"
McMahon also said it makes no sense to offer Quick a job, since he is a successful restaurant owner. Quick could not be reached for comment Tuesday,
The president of the state Senate says Illinois should consider taxing the retirement income of some senior citizens.
Chicago Democrat John Cullerton said Monday that Illinois needs to overhaul its "outdated" tax system. As part of that process, the state could tax pensions or 401(k) plans for wealthier retirees.
He told the City Club of Chicago this could bring in roughly $1.6 billion a year, which could then be used to lower other taxes.
A spokeswoman says Cullerton would pursue the idea only if it was revenue neutral and had Republican support.
Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn said he hadn't seen Cullerton's proposal but would be willing to consider it in the interest of tax "fairness.
Chicagoans are paying steep prices at the gas pump lately. It's prompted one Chicago congresswoman to call for action against the oil companies.
U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Chicago, said Monday gas prices are so high, they could create another recession.
"I think we need to put on the table everything, including dipping into the reserves, in order to avoid that," Schakowsky siad. She said the U.S. government should end its subsidies to oil companies because their profits are so high.
Meantime, new statistics from AAA show Chicagoans are paying an average of $3.72 per gallon at gas pumps. That's 37 cents higher than last month.
"We're seeing very, very high oil prices for, really, any time of the year," Beth Mosher, a spokeswoman for the organization, said. "The situation in Libya, the unrest in Libya, has prices very, very high."
Mosher suggests commuters stick to public transit - since prices aren't expected to come down for at least the next few weeks.
(Photo by Tony Arnold/IPR)
A two-week hearing begins Monday to determine the fate of Tribune Co. more than two years after an ill-advised $8.2 billion buyout drove one of the oldest U.S. media companies into bankruptcy protection.
The proceedings follow four years of tumult and intrigue at Tribune Co. The company has been through the disgrace of a bankruptcy case that has lasted far longer than planned, a CEO departure triggered by complaints about management's raunchiness and the whiff of a financial scandal fanned by a court-appointed examiner's conclusion that parts of the 2007 buyout had bordered on fraud.
The hearing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Del., will affect the ownership of the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Sun of Baltimore, other daily newspapers and 23 television stations. The TV stations include Chicago-based WGN, which reaches more than 70 million homes nationwide, mostly through cable and satellite systems.
The hearing edges Tribune Co. closer toward shedding most of the roughly $13 billion that it carried into bankruptcy protection. If it can unload the debt, the company believes it can make money while it tries to adapt to a marketing shift to the Internet.
Judge Kevin Carey is being asked to choose between two competing reorganization plans. The plans differ in their appraisals of Tribune Co.'s current value and their limitations on which participants in the troublesome buyout can be sued for saddling the company with too much debt.
Either way, the outcome is likely to leave Tribune Co. controlled by its creditors. The new owners are expected to replace the patchwork management team that has been running the Chicago-based company since the previous CEO, Randy Michaels, resigned in October amid complaints about risque conduct.
Tribune Co., founded in 1847, filed for bankruptcy protection in December 2008, making it the first major U.S. newspaper publisher to do so during the Great Recession. The deep downturn magnified the challenges facing newspaper publishers as readers and advertisers moved from print to digital alternatives.
The slump prompted more than a dozen other newspaper publishers to follow Tribune Co. into bankruptcy protection. Like Tribune Co., several of them were saddled with billions of debt taken on during better times. Most of them have emerged from bankruptcy protection already.
The complex 2007 buyout engineered by real estate mogul Sam Zell complicated Tribune Co.'s effort to return to normal business operations. The allegations of financial conduct made many creditors less inclined to make concessions during negotiations on a reorganization plan. The independent examiner's report last summer prompted the company to back off one proposal.
This month's hearing makes it more likely that Tribune Co. will finally emerge from bankruptcy court this year. The legal fallout could last for years, however. Both plans envision creditors pursuing lawsuits in an attempt to recover more of their losses, and there could be an appeal of Carey's decision in the case.
The stakes riding on the resolution of the convoluted saga are expected to attract a crowd. Carey is setting up a video feed in an overflow room to accommodate up to 100 more people beyond the 175 spectators that can cram into his courtroom. The judge also is clearing space in the courtroom for more than 2,000 exhibits expected to be submitted during the hearing.
"It will take some time and involve some tedium," Carey said during a housekeeping hearing last week.
The hearings also could shed more light on Tribune Co.'s operations and the behind-the-scenes maneuvering that led to the Zell buyout, which took the company private and turned employees into part-owners.
Reams of documents in the case have been kept under wraps to protect what has been described as confidential business information. Carey so far has rejected requests to unseal the documents, but he has warned that some of the information could come out during the hearing because he doesn't plan to close the courtroom.
Tribune Co. favors a plan that would turn over ownership to the company's major creditors, including some that had helped line up the ruinous financing, which already has triggered lawsuits. It would shield the lenders involved in the buyout from lawsuits after the company emerges from Chapter 11. Opponents of the plan contend it would also block attempts to sue former Tribune Co. shareholders who received $4.3 billion in the buyout's first phase.
This proposal has the backing of Tribune's Co.'s proposed new owners - a group led by banker JPMorgan Chase & Co., distressed debt specialist Angelo, Gordon & Co. and hedge fund Oaktree Capital Management. It's also supported by Tribune Co.'s committee for unsecured creditors.
A group of creditors that owns Tribune Co. debt issued before the Zell buyout has proposed an alternative plan primarily because they want fewer limits on which parties can be sued for alleged fraud. The plan also contends these note holders, led by hedge fund Aurelius Capital, are entitled to be paid bankruptcy claims totaling $1.2 billion instead of $761 million offered in the proposal backed by Tribune Co.
Zell, still Tribune Co.'s chairman, has filed objections to both plans because he and a business arm, Equity Group Investments, would remain exposed to lawsuits alleging fraud.
The competing reorganization plans also came up with dramatically different estimates on Tribune Co.'s business value. The company-backed plan pegs it at $6.7 billion, compared with $8.3 billion in the Aurelius-led proposal.
Tribune Co. has been gradually recovering from the recession, primarily because of an industry-wide revival in television advertising. The company's revenue last year totaled $3.1 billion, 2 percent below 2009, based on court documents.
But the company still gets more of its revenue from newspapers and other publishing sources. Tribune Co. has predicted its revenue this year will decline 4 percent, dip another 2 percent in 2012 and slip 3 percent in 2013.
Those forecasts assume the new owners won't break the company apart by selling some of the newspapers and TV stations.
Union groups plan to continue rallying at the Indiana Statehouse to protest several bills supported by Republicans.
The Indiana AFL-CIO says it expects thousands to attend a "We Are Indiana" rally Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the west side of the Statehouse. Tuesday, unions are planned to mourn the "death of the middle class" with a New Orleans-style funeral procession.
Members of the AFL-CIO and other unions have been gathering at the Statehouse to protest what they consider anti-union legislation backed by Republicans who control the House and Senate. House Democrats are boycotting that chamber in an effort to derail some of the proposals.
Democrats say they won't come back until Republicans negotiate, but Republican House leaders refuse, saying they won't be bullied into dropping bills.
About 80 Champaign employees, most of them in public works, are being asked to begin scheduling furlough days to reduce the impact of salary increases that went into effect last July.
City human resources director Chris Bezruki said the AFSCME union workers are being asked to take six furlough days between now and the end of August. He said the salaries of non-union city employees were frozen this fiscal year, but AFSCME received a 3-and a quarter percent raises. The union has responded to the furlough mandate by filing an unfair labor practice charge against the city of Champaign, alleging leaders negotiated in bad faith. Their complaint will go before the Illinois Labor Relations Board.
City negotiations with AFSCME Council 31 started in December. Bezruki said the two sides started to discuss the impact of furlough days.
"How many we need to take, and how we're going to do that?" Bezruki said. "How we're going to schedule it? What employee input should there be? Should they schedule a furlough day next to a holiday if they want, or things like that? They refused to make a counterproposal at all, and so we had declare an impasse just last month. And so now we're proceeding with implementing this process."
Michael Wilmore, a Staff Representative with the AFSCME union, said the city chose to ignore a number of other cost saving options, including a pay freeze, removing the cap on overtime pay to comp time, and starting a four 10-hour day schedule for public works. He contends the moves could have saved more than $200,000 additional dollars.
Bezruki said the complaint filed by AFSCME means the Labor Relations Board will request information on negotiations between the two sides, the proposals that were exchanged, and whether a hearing will take place. He said that process can be drawn out as long as six months.
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