At a recent forum on workforce participation, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner claimed the state couldn’t give away, let alone sell, a shuttered auto plant in downstate Normal "because our regulations are so hostile to business and our taxes are so high."
In fact, Rauner’s own administration last year lured a new tenant for the old Mitsubishi Motors factory, an electric car startup.
That misrepresentation sparked a lot of controversy, but something else the governor said at the forum also caught our attention. He claimed laid-off Mitsubishi workers, all union members, told him they were moving to Texas.
"There’s more union jobs growing in Texas, which is a right-to-work state, than in Illinois, and factory workers make more money in Texas than they do in Illinois. That’s where the opportunity is," Rauner said.
Rauner has long attacked union power in Illinois as an impediment to the state’s economic vitality. Usually, however, he compares Illinois’ job growth to neighboring Indiana, which like Texas is also a so-called right-to-work state where union membership can’t be compelled.
That got us wondering: Is Rauner right that the job picture is brighter for union members in Texas? And why is he now pointing to the Lone Star state, with an energy-rich economy that has little in common with Illinois, instead of Indiana next door?
Rauner often complains that pro-union, anti-business policies of Illinois Democrats have worked to the advantage of other neighboring states, especially Indiana. "They’re kicking our tails," is a frequent refrain.
But new data have rendered such comparisons problematic, making Texas a more appealing focus despite vast differences from Illinois in economy and population.
In 2017, while Illinois saw a modest gain in its unionized workforce, Indiana lost more than 37,000 union jobs, according to data from Unionstats.com, a long-running tally of federally compiled employment numbers for union workers created by professors at Georgia State University and Trinity University.
What’s more, other federal data show Illinois workers employed in the manufacturing sector — the closest approximation to Rauner’s reference to factory workers — make an average $9,200 more per year than their counterparts in Indiana.
A Rauner spokeswoman did not respond to our questions about why the governor in his recent talk stressed comparisons with Texas and not Indiana or other neighboring right-to-work states. She did, however, point us to U.S. Census Bureau data showing that Texas in 2017 added more than 52,000 private-sector union jobs while Illinois lost over 9,000. The distinction between private-sector versus total union jobs, however, was not one made by Rauner during the event.
As for pay, his spokeswoman noted that other federal data show manufacturing workers in Texas make, on average, $100-a-week more than their Illinois counterparts.
In the strictest sense, then, Rauner’s assertions about Texas pan out. But labor experts cautioned against drawing conclusions about employment opportunity based solely on the number of union jobs gained or lost.
Robert Bruno, director of the the labor education program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said it’s important to bear in mind the vast difference in scale between Illinois and Texas, which has more than twice the population and more than twice the overall workforce.
Texas is adding more union jobs because it’s adding more jobs period and is much bigger than Illinois, not because it’s more union-friendly, Bruno said.
"Some of (those jobs) happened to be union jobs and as a result, they're added to the roll," Bruno said. "They don't indicate that you're in a workforce where workers found it easy and doable to join a union."
Indeed, less than 5 percent of the total Texas workforce is comprised of union members, a share no higher than it was a decade ago despite growth in the number of union jobs, according to Unionstats. In Illinois, the comparable figure was 15 percent, up slightly over the last decade.
"Your chance of finding a union job is going to be much greater in a state that has twice the percentage of union employers, twice the percent of union members and one half the size of the labor force than if you jump into this enormous pool in Texas," Bruno said.
Another key point the governor leaves out: what’s behind Texas’ surging union employment figures.
Michael Hicks, an economics professor at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., said Texas’ gains in manufacturing employment are largely a byproduct of its booming energy sector, an artifact of geological luck that Illinois and most other states can’t match. And energy jobs also tend to pay more than other manufacturing jobs.
"When you're a state like Texas that's growing manufacturing, industrial jobs — natural gas, pipelines, refineries — those jobs are likely to be unionized and they’re going to be expanding," said Hicks, who tracks job trends in the Midwest.
While making a point about Illinois’ business climate, Rauner said "there’s more union jobs growing in Texas, which is a right-to-work state, than in Illinois and factory workers make more money in Texas than they do in Illinois."
His office sent us data indicating Texas grew more union jobs, and at a faster clip, than did Illinois. It also pointed to federal data showing manufacturing workers in Texas made $100 more per week on average than their Illinois counterparts.
But such numbers belie the fact that Illinois couldn’t be Texas if it tried. The more populous state has grown its manufacturing — and therefore, its union — jobs thanks to a booming economy that’s received a major boost from its oil and gas industry, something Illinois thanks to its geography and geology simply doesn’t have.
And despite a stalled economy in Illinois, union workers still make up a greater share of the workforce in Illinois than they do in Texas, which, according to labor expert Robert Bruno, is a more accurate indicator of employment opportunity for those seeking a union job.
Rauner’s claims about union jobs growth and pay disparities in the manufacturing sector pencil out on paper. But his selective use of data leaves out important context and distorts trends far more nuanced than he describes. For that reason, we rate the governor’s assertions Half True.