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Post By:  Chicago Tribune

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Gov. Bruce Rauner takes questions after announcing his support for a Democratic pension reform proposal during a news conference outside his office Jan. 21, 2016.

 

 

In the name of rescuing Illinois from a sea of red ink, Gov. Bruce Rauner proposes what was called, in the schoolyards of my youth, “a fair fight.” The rules were simple: anything goes, provided neither side has a baseball bat or brass knuckles. As long as that condition was met, onlookers would chant: “Let ’em duke it out! It’s a fair fight!” Even when, say, an eighth-grader was pounding on a pint-sized fourth-grader.

Rauner’s version is embedded in his attack on a union’s right to collect dues from nonunion government employees who don’t want to pay them. He asks if it’s fair to collect money from a nonunion worker who may not agree with a union’s politics. It’s an arguable proposition. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently reviewing a California case that poses just that question.

That sounds more like asking a fourth-grader to go up against an eighth-grader.

Both of Rauner’s objection to compulsory union fees and the Supreme Court case turn on an issue of free speech. It’s obviously an important consideration, being a right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But before deciding how it applies in these disputes, consider the role that speech — free, constrained and stifled — plays in a viable democracy.

In a nutshell: The noisier the better. Democracy is messy, thank goodness. It works best when voices are raised and arguments get testy. A quiet democracy is a contradiction in terms. Show me one and I’ll ask: “Whose orders are being rubber-stamped?” Dictators prefer a variant form dubbed “guided democracy” by Sukarno, Indonesia’s first president.

The case against the unions rests on the argument that public sector unions have an undue influence on elected officials. They hold a club over their negotiating partners: If their contract demands aren’t met, they can bankroll an officeholder’s challengers. Assuming that’s the case, a corollary would seem to follow:

If the problem with public sector unions is that their money is a pernicious influence on the political process, shouldn’t businesspeople be prohibited from making campaign contributions? Gov. Rauner’s campaign contributors included Kenneth Griffin, a hedge fund founder and Illinois’ wealthiest person, who together with his family, kicked in millions for Rauner’s campaign and allowed him to use his private plane. Real estate tycoon Sam Zell also was a mega-contributor.

A list of road paving contractors who make political contributions generally matches a list of contractors who get paving contracts. It is hard to believe that all businesspeople who make political contributions are uniformly motivated by an unselfish interest in good government. Certainly some must want something in return, like a governor and legislators who are pro-business. Why is that OK, and unions wanting pro-labor officeholders not OK?

Rauner’s beef with public unions was echoed during a recent Supreme Court session. A number of justices were troubled that a California teachers union requires nonmembers to pay a portion of members dues. Doesn’t that mean that nonmembers are forced to pay for political causes that the union supports but that they may not? The union answered that it wasn’t an infringement of the teachers’ right of free speech. Nothing prevented them from expressing their political convictions as individuals.

Some justices seemed skeptical — leading court observers to think the union will lose the argument.

Yet five years ago, the Supreme Court bought it. At issue in the famed Citizens United case was whether corporate funds could finance political campaigns. The government argued “that corporate independent expenditures can be limited because of its interest in protecting dissenting shareholders from being compelled to fund corporate political speech.”

The court rejected that argument, saying dissenting stockholders could find other ways to express their views. Should it now turn around and say dissenting teachers have no alternatives would mean that what’s good for the goose is not good for the gander. There would be one rule for corporations, another for unions. And that won’t be good for any of us, whatever our politics. We will be on our way to a semi-noisy, half-muffled democracy.

Corporations would have the same funds as before to buy ads to drown out opposing views. Unions would have less money to broadcast their side of an issue. That’s not democratic.

In 1886, a labor leader put the issue succinctly. Albert Parsons was about to be executed for a murder he didn’t commit, as a Chicago prosecutor admitted. A bomb had been thrown at a union rally in Chicago, killing several policemen. The bomber’s identity had never been discovered, but Parsons and seven other activists were convicted on the theory that their words inspired whoever did it.

They had campaigned for reducing the work day to eight hours.

Standing on the gallows, Parsons said: “Let the voice of the people be heard!”

 

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