Illinois Public Media News
University of Illinois students, faculty, and local high school students stepped away from the classroom to speak out on behalf of public employees in Wisconsin, Indiana, and other states.
About 250 carried signs on the Urbana campus quad to show their solidarity for collective bargaining rights and public education. Library and Information Science professor Susan Davis of the U of I's Campus Faculty Association said the events in Wisconsin this week were an attack on the right of people to act collectively to define their own interests.
"So for weeks, the Republicans framed their attack on the unions as a purely fiscal issue," she told the crowd. "But on Wednesday night, they admitted that the motive was not the budget. It was collective bargaining all along. It wasn't about money, it was about power."
Davis' words were met with cheers. Two University Laboratory High School students that play on the girls' soccer team say they're being threatened with a suspension and missing their first game. They say threats of those consequences kept about 30 of their classmates from attending. About five other students from Urbana High School attended the rally as well, including junior Julian Threlkeld.
"Unions workers work really hard at their jobs," Threlkeld said. "They deserve the rights. They deserve the priveleges. And the fact that the movement of collective bargaining has been taken away from them is totally wrong in my opinion."
Threkeld says he might get a detention because of his leaving school early, but says the cause was worth it. The majority of the crowd consisted of U of I students. The rally was led by the Graduate Employees Organization.
A team of researchers from the University of Illinois will be going to Japan next week to survey the devastation caused by Friday's magnitude 8.9 earthquake and tsunami.
Doctoral candidate Hussam Mahmoud with the U of I's Mid-America Earthquake Center said one thing to learn from the world's 5th largest earthquake since 1900 will be how to better retrofit buildings. He said damage to newer structures will reveal flaws in design codes. But Mahmoud said Japan had already improved from prior designs, learning from the 1995 magnitude 7.2 quake near the city of Kobe that claimed more than 6,000 lives.
"Then we can see exactly what are the weak points we have in all design codes," Mahmoud said. "And the design really are no different in any countries of the world. What they have in Japan for design and the codes that we also have here, there's a lot of dissemation of information, there might be slight differences, but we're pretty much doing the same thing."
But Mahmoud said the tsunami and many fires associated with this earthquake make it very hard to assess the total loss of life, damage, and economic impact.
He said the information coming from his team's research in Japan will be distributed to thousands of agencies worldwide studying seismic activity.
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)
Pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen is interested in an Illinois Senate seat after losing an independent bid for governor.
Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White says a group of Chicago ward committeemen will meet Monday to choose between Cohen and other candidates who want to replace former state Sen. Rickey Hendon, who resigned last month.
White says the candidates include Cohen, Democratic Rep. Annazette Collins and former Chicago Alderman Ed Smith.
The Senate seat is Cohen's latest attempt to get into politics. He lost a bid for governor after giving up the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor when revelations about his personal life became public.
White says the committeemen want to pick a replacement who can win a full term in next year's election.
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.
Nearly 200 University of Illinois Urbana campus graduate workers affected by a payroll glitch can receive emergency grant money this semester.
U of I spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the university is temporarily raising the cap on that program, so anyone impacted will be able to recoup what they were losing by the university's failure to collect taxes on tuition waivers the last seven years.
Revised figures show about 170 grad assistants were impacted, but Kaler said only six are to receive no pay over the next three months. One hundred ten of them will see a pay reduction of 10-percent or less. Graduate Employees Organization spokesman Christopher Simeone said he is happy to see the U of I stepped up and took the blame.
"We felt from the beginning that although this is a series of accidents that this was ultimately the University's responsibility," Simeone said. "We felt that it was unjust to hand down the consequences of the mistakes unto least able to bear those consequences."
Kaler said the cap for emergency grants is being temporarily increased to $2,200 this semester, allowing to recoup what would have received over the next three months. Students are normally limited to $500 a semester through the grants.
Kaler said there are other situations in which others students would apply for the grants.
"You do not have to be a GA or a PGA to apply for this program," she said. "If for example, you have a job on campus and you also have a job in the community somewhere and you've lost your job, you would be a candidate to apply for this."
Grant forms are being made available in the next couple of days, with the money expected with seven to 10 days. When the payroll error was discovered, some graduate workers indicated they would have to withdraw from school. Simeone said he can't verify that anyone did, but says members of the GEO were 'very scared'.
He said the union is still concerned about future problems regarding tax withholdings, and is working with the U of I to help plan members' budgets. He said the GEO is also trying to contact US Senator Dick Durbin's office about potential revisions to federal tax law.
Two officials from Urbana's sister city in the African country of Malawi were scheduled to wind up their trip here Thursday night with a reception at the home of University of Illinois President Michael Hogan. It was the last major event in what's been a busy week for Charles Kalemba and Mussa Mwale of Zomba. Kalemba is Zomba's chief executive officer --- similar to a city manager --- and Mwale is his administrative director.
Kalemba said he hopes the meetings he's had this week in Urbana can lead to constructive projects between the two cities --- and between the University of Illinois and Zomba's Chancellor College campus of the University of Malawi. He also said he welcomes the personal contacts he's made.
"Let me say that we've also found out the friendliness of the people," Kalemba said. "We actually, from day one till now, been meeting people, friendly people, discussions, interested to know what Zomba is all about, what Malawi's all about, what Africa's all about."
During their visit to Urbana, Kalemba and Mwale have received the key to the city from Mayor Laurel Prussing, and presented gifts to city council members. They attended a Rotary Club meeting, a concert at the Krannert Center, toured local schools, and met the public during a Wednesday night "Malwai Mixer" at the Urbana Civic Center on Wednesday that attracted several dozen residents.
It was at the Malawi Mixer especially that Kalemba says he met many potential visitors to his city.
"A lot of people now are I think, aware of the (sister city) relationship," Kalemba said. "And a lot of people are now saying, what can we do to go? So I think Dennis and Scott are the ones who are going to coordinate here to see how best we start this. Because I think there's a lot of response, these few days we've been here."
Scott Dossett and Urbana Alderman Dennis Roberts serve on the Urbana Sister Cities committee, and have both visited Zomba --- several times, in Roberts' case. They say they hope to organize another trip of Urbana residents to Zomba later this year.
The Zomba-Urbana sister city relationship comes under the auspices of the group Sister Cities International. Officials from the two cities attended the group's national conference in Arlington, Virginia last weekend.
Zomba has more than twice the population of Urbana, but about the same land area. Besides being home to Chancellor College, Zomba is the capitol of Zomba District, and the former national capital of Malawi. Urbana residents are already working with people in Zomba on water and sanitation projects funded by a grant from Sister Cities International.
(Photo courtesy of Scott Dossett)
Quinn Signs Law to Collect Online Sales Tax
Illinois consumers may find themselves paying sales taxes on some Internet purchases under a new state law.
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.
Heading into the Big Ten tournament, Illinois coach Bruce Weber has questions.
Will Jereme Richmond's banged-up shoulder hold up? Can he count on slumping guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul for at least tough defense in Friday's game against Michigan? Will Demetri McCamey's solid form of the past few weeks last?
But Weber figures, surely, there's at least one thing he doesn't have to question -- what happens to Illinois (19-12, 9-9 Big Ten) after the conference tournament is done.
If Illinois isn't in the NCAA tournament, "I would be dumbfounded, to be honest," Weber said, counting off the tough non-conference opponents the Illini faced this season -- Texas, Maryland, North Carolina and Gonzaga among them. Illinois beat the last three and took Texas to overtime.
Then again, the Illini were stunned a year ago when they were left out of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. Their record then (19-14, 10-8) was even a little better as far as conference play goes.
This season, Weber said, the Illini went through a tougher schedule with last year's snub in mind.
If games against Texas, North Carolina and the rest don't get the Illini into an expanded tourney that now includes 68 teams, "I will totally change my mindset of scheduling philosophy, I promise that," he said.
Illinois has rebounded in recent weeks from a midseason slump that saw them slide out of the Top 25 and into the middle of the Big Ten pack. McCamey's game in particular fell off and losses to Indiana, Penn State and Northwestern piled up like failing grades on the Illini report card.
Since then, the Illini sandwiched wins over the Hoosiers and Iowa around a close road loss to Purdue.
The team that won those games, Weber said, looked a lot more like the one that handled North Carolina than the one that couldn't buy a key basket when it needed one at Indiana.
"We had the puzzle pretty well put together early; it got messed up," Weber said. "Now we're putting those pieces back into the puzzle."
The biggest piece of that puzzle is McCamey..
The senior guard, even with his midseason slump, is Illinois' leading scorer with 15 points a game. And no one on the roster can run the offense the way McCamey can -- his 6.1 assists a game are second in the conference, behind the Wolverines' Darius Morris.
McCamey traces his problems -- and his team's -- to a tentative streak he believes is behind them.
"I think I've just got to be aggressive," he said, adding that the Illini were often slow to get into transition during their slump. "We are a real dangerous team when we get out in transition."
Weber said his other questions still need to be answered.
Richmond, the first player off the bench for Illinois, is playing with pain in his injured shoulder but will have to be a factor for the Illini if they're going to get past Michigan (19-12, 9-9).
Paul and Richmond, Weber said, could be important, too. Paul is one of Illinois' only options for spelling McCamey -- and when he's on, the sophomore guard can be a dangerous shooter. Richardson, meanwhile, will likely have a lot of the defensive responsibility for Morris.
"Morris is kind of the head of the group," Weber said. "A Steve Nash-like player that wheels and deals and sets up everyone else.
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