A widespread, state-employee labor action in Illinois — one of fewer than a dozen states where it's legal for public employees to strike — would be unprecedented both here and nationally, said Martin Malin, director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. A private-sector strike is designed to disrupt a company's income, but in government contract disputes, a work stoppage is a political weapon, he said.
"It would be very, very high-risk on both sides," said Malin.
He referred to several bitter issues pending between the Quinn administration and the union: the pay-raise litigation, a bill recently sent to Quinn for approval that restricts collective bargaining rights and Quinn's decision last fall to stop extending the union contract as talks continued — a move that has been mostly symbolic but demoralizing for workers.
"The disputes between the governor's office and AFSCME are far broader than what the next contract's going to look like," Malin said.
In terms of sheer numbers, an AFSCME strike would not be much bigger than the 26,000 strikers from the Chicago Public Schools last fall, said Bob Bruno, director of the Labor Education Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. But a teacher, a highly influential adult in a child's life outside home, might have an easier time explaining why he or she has to stop working than a bureaucrat in a sometimes-amorphous desk job.
"That 8th-grade elementary school teacher, people just love them," Bruno said. "Whereas teachers have this public profile, the nondescript, hardworking people behind counters somewhere, reading a file, addressing a complaint, people never come in contact with them."
On the other hand, Bruno questioned whether any governor would want to campaign for re-election on a government shutdown brought on by a strike, no matter how difficult the state's fiscal picture.
An AFSCME strike wouldn't necessarily be limited to the union's own workers. Bayer believes members of other unions generally have the right to refuse to cross an AFSCME picket line.
AFSCME does not represent any of the approximately 3,700 employees at the secretary of state's office. But the Service Employees International Union covers 2,450 employees, including those who license facilities — a major point of contact for taxpayers.