Rauner to EMTs: No union for you

Governor vetoes bipartisan bills intended to consider paramedics as firefighters

Gov. Bruce Rauner and state Rep. Kathleen Willis at a bill signing at the Thompson Center in Chicago earlier this summer. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

Gov. Bruce Rauner and state Rep. Kathleen Willis at a bill signing at the Thompson Center in Chicago earlier this summer. (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

The governor took his union antagonism to emergency medical technicians and paramedics Sunday by vetoing bills that would have granted them the same basic rights as firefighters.

Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed two bills sponsored by state Rep. Kathleen Willis of Addison. One would have granted EMTs and paramedics the same rights to collective bargaining as firefighters. The other would have granted those injured or killed on the job the same expanded benefits as firefighters.

The bills simply added EMTs and paramedics to the definition of "firefighter" under those existing state laws, and they passed the General Assembly with overwhelming bipartisan support by a combined vote of 303-13.

Yet Rauner said they would have imposed "an unfunded state mandate on local governments," and he argued in favor of holding down salaries for paramedics and EMTs.

"Local governments should have flexibility to determine benefit and employment conditions for their own employees based on local resources, needs, and labor availability, including the categories of employees with collective-bargaining rights," Rauner said in a statement. "By forcing all local governments to collectively bargain with paramedics in their employ, the bill limits locals’ ability to control and curb their operations and spending."

"I'm very surprised," Willis responded Monday. "Basically, we're just saying they need to be recognized for the hard work they do."

According to Willis, there are already six small unions representing emergency-medical-service employees statewide, primarily in southern Illinois, "which is why there was such strong bipartisan support." 

Rauner made clear his antagonism toward public-worker unions by charging that the legislation "perpetuates the decades of political corruption that has plagued the state of Illinois for too long."

Calling them "corrupt bargains," Rauner added, "Time and again elected officials have granted sweeping benefits and power to the unions in exchange for campaign contributions and political support, creating a system of entrenchment, waste, and bad government. Today, Illinois has one of the highest percentages of unionized public employees in the country and offers extremely generous employment and pension benefits."

Many state workers, however, see that as a good thing, and EMTs and paramedics would have no doubt welcomed being placed on equal footing with the firefighters they work with.

"It's unfortunate when the (emergency-medical-service) professionals who work hard to keep our communities safe each day don't get the support they deserve," said Phil Petit, national director of the International Association of EMTs & Paramedics. "The IAEP is continually fighting to improve rights for EMTs and paramedics and to expand the public knowledge of EMS in an effort to put emergency medical responders in line with other public-safety personnel and first responders."

Willis said Rauner's statement "calls unions corrupt and really puts city officials and unions as both being corrupt." She labeled that "a bunch of bahooey."

Rauner insisted he has "the utmost respect for paramedics in Illinois. Their work is extremely taxing and critical to the health and survival of many Illinois citizens and visitors." But he immediately added that granting them the same standing as firefighters "continues the deep political corruption between union leaders and elected state officials that is debilitating this state."

Willis said the governor was clearly feeling his oats after the U.S. Supreme Court's Janus decision in June.

Rauner, of course, filed the original lawsuit that eventually became known as the Janus case, decided by the U.S. Supreme Court this summer in a ruling that limited the power of public-worker unions. His administration used that decision to stage an immediate attack on union membership for state workers.

Willis pointed out the bills would have granted EMS workers the same basic rights as firefighters and did not compel union membership, adding, "It's not forcing anybody to become a union member by any means."

Willis insisted the battle's not over, however, saying, "I totally expect it to be overridden" in the veto session.