“Illinois Is Broke” Peddles Broken Rhetoric

The Commercial Club of Chicago now has a website to promote its campaign to cut public employee pensions -- and it uses the same rhetoric Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies used to support stripping collective bargaining rights from teachers.

Illinois Is Broke rightly points out that Illinois has the most underfunded pension system in the U.S., at 51 percent. But it then attempts to arouse resentment against public employees by claiming that they receive better retirement benefits than 95 percent of Illinoisans.

“How would you like to retire at 55 with a full pension and free health care?” a radio spot entitled “The Sweet Deal” asks. “A pretty sweet deal -- if you work for the state of Illinois. “Problem is, we can’t afford it. Right now, 95 percent of Illinois residents pay higher taxes so 5 percent -- bureaucrats and other public workers -- can retire at 55.”

After stigmatizing public employees as “bureaucrats,” the ad concedes there are “other public workers,” but doesn’t mention they include state troopers, road workers and nurses.

The Commercial Club is the longtime voice of Chicago’s union-busting robber barons. Its members have included railcar builder George Pullman, who called in federal troops to break a strike at his company town, resulting in the deaths of 13 workers. They’ve also included Montgomery Ward Sewell Avery, who was arrested by National Guardsmen when he defied President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s orders to allow unionization at his business.

The class envy angle is particularly cynical, because the main reason private employees don’t enjoy the same benefits as public employees is that groups such as the Commercial Club have been so successful in destroying the labor movement. Now, they’re trying to turn the impoverished lower-middle class they helped create against one of the last remnants of the middle class, all so the upper class can pay less taxes. I’d like to know the size of Commercial Club members’ pensions.

The state has already cut benefits for new hires. But that’s not enough for the Commercial Club. The Illinois Is Broke website claims that an analysis by Sidley & Austin -- the law firm of Commercial Club president R. Eden Martin -- determined that cutting benefits to current government employees is constitutional. However, staffers for Senate President John Cullerton issued a report saying such cuts are not constitutional.

Illinois may be broke. But so is Illinois Is Broke’s rhetoric.

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