Protesters Boo Top Democrats at Illinois State Fair

Reported by Amanda Vinicky

Unions caused a ruckus on Wednesday at a Democratic rally at the Illinois State Fair. Although labor unions have historically been backers of Democrats, protestors instead booed them, and called Gov. Pat Quinn a liar. 

Labor unions say it's time for Gov. Quinn and other party leaders begin acting like Democrats. The protests come before a special legislative session Friday during which lawmakers are scheduled to consider cutting public employees' retirement benefits.

Governor's Day is meant to be a day for unity. A chance for Democrats from across the state to get together, and energize the ranks ahead of the fall elections.

The morning largely started off that way, at a breakfast held by the Democratic County Chairmen. Some union members were there, in protest.

"Honor the contract!" they proclaimed. "Honor the collective bargaining contract Governor. Respect Illinois workers."

Otherwise the breakfast went generally as planned. Pat Quinn got applause, and even some cheers, when he took the podium.

He did make one misstep as trying to gin the crowd up to support the President. He mistakenly called referred to Osama Bin Laden as 'Obama,' but Quinn quickly corrected himself.

"I goofed that one up," Quinn said.

Quinn's problems only got worse as the day progressed.

After the brunch, and a meeting at a Springfield hotel, Quinn hurried off to the state fair.

Throngs of state workers - mostly members of AFSCME, the state's largest public employees union - were there to greet him at the main gate. Illinois unions are traditionally allies of Democrats. It was with unions' money and manpower that Quinn was able to squeak out a win for the governor's office two years ago. However, this time they came with harsh words for the governor.

"He is breaking contractual rights and hurting working families," said John Lamb, a prison guard in Shawnee.

"I got two years to retire," said Darlene Demattia, a Dwight Prison guard. "He promised this when we started, and now he wants to take it away, you planned your entire life for this and now he wants to take it away."

"We've been promised things and Quinn has taken it away," said Lynn, a social worker from the Quad Cities who didn't want to give her last name for fear she'd get fired. "I voted for him, and I believed what he was going to do and he's not doing it."

AFSCME, as well as unions representing teachers, police, and nurses, are upset the Governor's leading the charge to reduce state employee's pensions. They accuse Quinn of undermining public employees' collective bargaining rights because Quinn's suing to withhold pay raises guaranteed in AFSCME's contract.

They are angry Quinn is closing prisons and other facilities, which means thousands of their members will be laid off.

The state fair was a chance for them to make their voices heard ... literally.

They tagged along with Quinn each step of the way. They followed the governor as he made his way through the state fair grounds. It was like Quinn was the grand marshal of a parade. Except the crowd following him was angry.

Anyone who dared side with Quinn was the subject of their fury. The disgruntled state employees and retirees even booed a woman who willingly posed with the governor for a photo.

State troopers and bodyguards kept the throng away from the governor. He went on talking to top aides and, and polished off a lunch of pork chop on a stick, as if he didn't notice.

"It's a free country, we're at the Illinois state fair and people can say whatever they want," Quinn said. "I have to make tough decisions some of those AFSCME people may not like that."

It was hard to find anyone in the audience who wasn't wearing a green, AFSCME t-shirt bearing some sort of anti-Quinn slogan. Even there, the protestors kept up their chanting, drowning out a country singer kicking off the festivities with an on-stage performance.

Lieutenant Gov. Sheila Simon was also booed. The chorus of jeers got louder at the mere mention of House Speaker Mike Madigan. Both Democrats support overhauling pensions.

The only real applause came when Secretary of State Jesse White took the stage, and when a plane flew overhead, with a banner trailing behind that read "Governor Quinn - unfair to workers." Nonetheless, Quinn took his turn at the podium:

"We all believe in the first amendment and the opportunity to speak so I will use my voice as I best can to thank everybody for coming," Quinn said.

He attempted to defend his stance.

"I think it's very important when you're governor of the state of Illinois you have to make a lot of decisions on behalf of the common good," Quinn added. "I inherited a lot of problems that I didn't create, but I'm here to repair and resolve them, reform them."

Union members say it is fair to direct their vitriol at Quinn. After all, he's the one who's calling the shots.

Earlier in the day, Speaker Madigan had come to Quinn's defense:

"Oh I think he's done a real good job under some really adverse circumstances," Madigan said. "I mean let's be honest, the guy came into office in the wake of Blagojevich, of all the problems that Blagojevich left. He came into office right as the financial meltdown was happening nationwide. He's a Democrat who doesn’t' want to cut governmental services and he's been called upon to do that. So you've got to give the guy credit. He's inherited a bad situation and he's done his best."

"Well we're trying to balance a budget, we're trying to improve the fiscal condition of the state of Illinois," Madigan noted. "People from organized labor are trying to present their people. It's just a natural conflict. It's going to be there. I don't think there's going to be any long term adverse consequences that come out of it."       

Ruby Robinson, who works for the State Department of Employment Security, said Democrats shouldn't be so sure. Robinson is from Aurora, and she is helping negotiate AFSCME's next state contract with the Quinn administration.

"Democrats you must realize you can no longer take our role for granted," Robinson said. "We will no longer be stool pigeons and we will no longer be puppets for you all. If you're going to be a Democrat you've got to prove it to us from now on."

Robinson said she will be watching on Friday  when the General Assembly convenes for a special session Quinn has called to take up the pension overhaul.

Despite her warning, Democratic Congressman Danny Davis didn't appear worried unions would be leaving his party for the GOP.

"I mean you can't tell me that organized labor wants to get in bed with right wing Republicans like Paul Ryan and Mitt Romney and think that you're going to be more from those individuals, more consideration from Tea Party types and more consideration from people who just want to keep the wealthiest as rich as they can possible get," Davis said. "If they think they're going to get more consideration from that group than they get from Pat Quinn and Mike Madigan, I don't know what planet they're living on."

Case in point: many Illinois Republican lawmakers are also clamoring to reduce teacher and state employees' retirement benefits. But don't expect throngs of union protestors showing up for the GOP's rally on Thursday, when it's Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair.

Story source: Illinois Public Radio