By Mary Wisniewski
CHICAGO (Reuters) - In a strike against public employee unions, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner on Monday signed an order eliminating union dues for some state employees who don't want to pay to support union activities.
Rauner, a Republican and political neophyte who came into office in January, has been vocal about his problems with public labor unions and their political power. The order, which would eliminate so-called "fair share dues," affects 6,500 state workers who have opted out of unions but still have to pay dues.
“Forced union dues are a critical cog in the corrupt bargain that is crushing taxpayers," Rauner said in a statement. "Government union bargaining and government union political activity are inexorably linked."
The action is likely to be challenged in court. The Rauner administration said dues would be placed in escrow during the legal process.
Rauner has argued that reforms are necessary to heal the state's financial problems. He has also proposed "empowerment zones" - areas where voters could decide if workers must join unions and pay dues.
Illinois has a chronic structural budget deficit, and the lowest credit ratings and the worst-funded pension system among the 50 states.
Rauner said he based his action on a review of the U.S. Supreme Court decision last year in Harris v. Quinn, which found that Illinois law violated the First Amendment by forcing home healthcare aides to involuntarily pay union fees.
Roberta Lynch, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the largest public labor union for state workers, called the move "a blatantly illegal abuse of power."
"Our union and all organized labor will stand together with those who believe in democracy to overturn Bruce Rauner’s illegal action and restore the integrity of the rule of law," Lynch said in a statement.
"It's a frontal assault on unions," said Harley Shaiken, a labor expert and professor at University of California-Berkeley. "He is interpreting the Harris-Quinn opinion, which was narrowly constructed, into a broad mandate."
Steve Brown, spokesman for Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, said Madigan has "urged Rauner to focus on near-term budget concerns."
State Senate President John J. Cullerton, also a Democrat, said his legal staff is reviewing Rauner's order.
Rauner's anti-union rhetoric has been compared with that of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who pushed for legislation that made union fees voluntary for state workers, among other changes.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee)