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AFSCME authorizes strike vote

By Pete Spitler
Posted on 1/13/2017, 1:31 PM

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is taking the next step in its ongoing contract battle with Gov. Bruce Rauner"s administration.

In a Jan. 13 email to union members, AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch set a strike authorization vote for a time period of January 30 to February 19.

Lynch noted that if a majority of its membership votes "yes," that does not necessarily mean there will be a strike.

"The (Bargaining) Committee will continue to do everything possible to reach a fair settlement," she wrote in the email, a copy of which was posted on Capitol Fax"s website. "But it does mean that if all such efforts fail, you will be prepared to go out on strike when the Committee issues the call.

"This is a choice that no responsible person would seek or savor. Yet we have a governor of our state who has continuously pushed to reach this juncture - to undermine employees" economic security and job rights or to shut down the state and deny citizens the services they need."

Specific information regarding voting dates, locations and procedures were stated to be released soon. Lynch noted voting will take place in each local union.

"When I wrote to you earlier this week, it was with the slimmest of hopes that Governor Rauner"s recent pronouncements about the importance of "compromise" to end the state budget crisis might actually have been made with a modicum of sincerity," Lynch wrote. "I thought that if he had finally come to see how his stubborn refusal to work toward a solution to the state"s fiscal woes was harming citizens all across Illinois, then perhaps he might also finally have realized how counterproductive it has been to take the same "my way or the highway" approach with his own employees - the thousands of dedicated public servants who protect children from abuse, monitor air and water quality, respond to natural disasters, care for aged veterans, and so much more."

Early Friday afternoon, Dennis Murashko, general counsel for the governor, responded to AFSCME"s decision to authorize a strike vote.

"Within weeks of our attempt to implement common sense changes like a 40-hour work week and zero tolerance for being intoxicated in the workplace, AFSCME has rushed to authorize a strike, putting Illinois residents at risk," he said in a statement. "It is disappointing that AFSCME refuses to respect the state labor board"s bipartisan ruling and work with us to implement a contract that is fair to taxpayers and state employees alike."

On Nov. 15, the Illinois Labor Relations Board sided with Rauner in ruling unanimously that talks were at an impasse between the state and the union, allowing the governor to impose his contract terms on the union that included (at the time) a proposed four-year wage freeze, 100 percent increase in employee insurance costs, merit pay and overtime after 40 hours rather than 37.5.

AFSCME, which is the state"s largest public employee union, then filed a lawsuit in December in union-friendly St. Clair County to prevent Rauner from implementing his terms.

On Jan. 9, AFSCME released new framework for a settlement deal in the contract dispute, which began after its last contract expired June 30, 2015.

The new AFSCME deal outlined the following:

• Employees would forgo any base wage increases in all four years of the contract.

• Employee contributions toward health insurance premium costs would increase by 2.5 percent immediately and an additional 3 percent in both fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019, along with increases in co-pays and deductibles.

• $1,000 in employee bonuses per employee in the first year of the contract and 2 percent of payroll in each subsequent year - would be equitably distributed to all employees as one-time payments in each of those years.

• Step increases: 40 percent of employees who have not reached the top of their pay plan would move up to the next step in that plan in fiscal year 2018 and fiscal year 2019.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly has called AFSCME"s proposal "superficial" and invited the union to drop its litigation blocking the administration"s "last, best and final offer and work with us on implementing common sense proposals like earning overtime for working over 40 hours a week, using volunteers and creating workplace safety regulations."

"Anyone with eyes to see can grasp that a settlement framework based on employees getting no base wage increase for four years - and paying more for their health insurance - represents real sacrifice," Lynch wrote. "The decision to put such a framework forward was not one that the Bargaining Committee made lightly because Committee members are keenly aware that it could entail real financial difficulties for some employees - especially those who are lower-paid or more recently hired."

On November 17, AFSCME members picketed state work sites, including Chester Mental Health Center.

The picket was under the theme of "Governor Rauner don"t dictate, negotiate," with a strong contingent of CMHC workers carrying signs with the phrase.

"We have several members who are single parents," said Randy Clover, spokesman for CMHC Local 424, during the picket. "The insurance rates would be devastating to their livelihood."

The state and the union have held 67 meetings and 24 formal negotiation sessions during the impasse, resulting in a reported 300 different proposals. But talks broke down in January 2016, leading to Rauner asking the ILRB to declare an impasse.

AFSCME has never gone on strike in its 45-year history of collective bargaining with the state and negotiations had never before reached an impasse.

"We feel like he"s forcing us into a strike," Clover previously said of Rauner. "Which we don"t want."

Later Friday, the Illinois Department of Central Management Services" Office of Labor Relations sent an email to state employees about AFSCME"s decision and advised them, in part, what the consequences would be if a strike occurs.

"The State will call on whatever resources it needs, from private vendors, other states, local governments, and other state resources to maintain services," the email said. "While the State would prefer to continue to utilize its regular workforce, the State"s duty to continue to provide services does not stop simply because AFSCME chooses to go on strike.

"In light of AFSCME"s repeated threats to go on strike, the State has had extensive conversations with outside resources who are willing to step up in the event of a strike."

In a separate, but related, matter, AFSCME has received a letter - dated Jan. 11 - from CMS stating that the agency is implementing the September 2015 layoffs at the World Shooting and Recreational Complex in Sparta.

The layoffs are effective at the end of the business day on Jan. 31 and will reportedly affect 11 AFSCME employees at the site.

According to the County Journal, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources plans to transfer those employees to other state facilities and will use contract workers during competitions only to perform routine maintenance.

This is the second time the WSRC has been pulled into the political feud. In 2015, the complex was closed to shooting due to the state"s budget impasse - ultimately resulting in the loss of the Scholastic Clay Target Program"s Nationals competition, the WSRC"s second-largest event behind the Amateur Trapshooting Association"s Grand American.

The ATA also considered moving its events, but reached an agreement with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources to stay in Sparta.

The state"s stopgap budget, passed last June, covered the WSRC through June of this year, making a total closure unlikely.

The complex has still not reopened to the public - only to groups or organizations that had pre-existing agreements with the IDNR prior to the budget impasse.

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