Gov. Bruce Rauner said Tuesday he wants to prioritize creating "right-to-work zones" in economically depressed areas where local officials could decide whether union fees would be voluntary for local workers.
The new Republican governor insisted he wasn't pushing for a statewide law like GOP-backed statutes fiercely opposed by Democrats in other states. But he said some communities in union-friendly Illinois could benefit from the flexibility to attract businesses.
"The states that are already growing don't force unionization into their economy," Rauner told an audience at Richland Community College in Decatur, a city he said could benefit from such a plan.
"I'm not advocating Illinois becoming a right-to-work state, but I do advocate (for) local governments being allowed to decide whether they're right-to-work zones," he said.
Labor issues were a prominent issue during Rauner's nationally watched run for governor in Illinois, where the Legislature has long been controlled by Democrats. Unions worked against Rauner throughout the campaign, after a primary race in which he made fighting "government union bosses" an ongoing theme.
Attendees at the Tuesday speech, one of several Rauner has given to preview themes of his first State of the State speech set for Feb. 4, said it was heartening to see the new governor in person. But some said they felt Rauner placed too much blame on public employee unions for Illinois' financial woes.
"I think unions have done a pretty good job and I don't think we need to be a scapegoat for the state's problems," said Sean Gallagher, a Richland English professor and member of the community college's employee union.
Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana are among states with right-to-work laws, which guarantee that workers won't be required to pay union dues on union-contract jobs. Supporters argue that states are at a competitive disadvantage in attracting business until they can guarantee that workers won't have to pay union dues if they don't want to.
Rauner has said that "right-to-work zones" could include designating areas where businesses face fewer tax and regulatory burdens.
Democrats and unions say such a plan would hurt Illinois workers.
"Making Illinois a right-to-work state in any form is a terrible idea," Michael Carrigan, president of the AFL-CIO Illinois, said in a statement Tuesday. Carrigan said responsible job creation in Illinois and across the U.S. "is the key to rebuilding our economy, not selling out working families to the lowest bidder."
Rauner's speech touched on various topics he has discussed in the past, including cutting spending on Medicaid and the state's payroll.