State, union bump heads at contract table

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

SPRINGFIELD — If a bargaining update sent by a government worker labor union to its members is an indication, the union and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s team are banging heads at the bargaining table.

Illinois_News_Network_logoIn its March-April bargaining bulletin for state employees, the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Council 31 says Rauner is staging an “all-out attempt to decimate your rights and protections on the job. Make sure your bargaining committee members know you are standing with them!”

The governor’s team is attempting “to undo decades of progress in shaping working conditions for state employees that are safe, humane and fair,” according to the memo, first reported on by WMAY News Talk 970 in Springfield.

The union says the Rauner administration wants to, among other things:

  • Eliminate any restrictions on mandatory overtime.
  • Eliminate all restrictions on subcontracting.
  • Allow the employer to lay off bargaining unit members and replace them with vendor employees.
  • Restrict recall rights of laid off employees.
  • Restrict overtime pay.

Neither officials with the Rauner administration nor with AFSCME immediately responded Monday to requests for comment.

Experienced observers said they weren’t surprised by the bulletin’s contents or tone.

Stephen Schnorf was a top aide in the administrations of governors Jim Edgar and George Ryan and has extensive bargaining experience.

“I think the negotiations will be very tough this year,” he said.

AFSCME managed to get good-to-excellent contracts from governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn despite Illinois’ serious economic problems, Schnorf said.

“My opinion is that’s not going to happen this time around,” he said.

“I think this is going to be a very different contract for them given the financial situation,” Schnorf said, adding that he’d not advised the Rauner administration nor was he speaking for it.

Schnorf said he thinks the “big ask” from the Rauner team will include concessions on wages  — perhaps the elimination of cost of living allowances — and increased contributions from employees toward health insurance costs.

The state is up against the wall financially, Schnorf said, and he doesn’t see Rauner trying to pacify AFSCME.

“It’s not like the state has a superfluous amount revenue with which it can fund a COLA,” Schnorf added.

“I think this is going to be a heck of a year,” he said.

The union’s releasing a charged bulletin to its members is likely a way to step around a vow to not negotiate by way of the media, Schnorf said, and it’s a tactic he said he’s seen the union use before.

Mike Lawrence, a longtime statehouse journalist who also served as an advisor to Gov. Jim Edgar and director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute, said he wasn’t surprised by the union’s memo.

“In my opinion, neither side is entering these negotiations with the best atmosphere for them,” Lawrence said.

Given the state’s extreme financial distress, Lawrence said, he’d like to see both sides agree to measures that restrain state spending.

But, he added, given Rauner’s public statements on public-sector unions to date, he’s not surprised AFSCME is taking a hard line or using emphatic language.

“It’s a little difficult to see someone’s point of view if they’re constantly poking you in the eye, and I think the governor’s been poking them in the eye.”

Lawrence predicted contentious talks and said he found it unfortunate because it will take compromise and cooperation from the governor, legislature and union to begin to truly address Illinois’ dismal finances.

The state is approaching fiscal year 2016 about $6.2 billion short. It also has long-term pension debt of more than $110 billion and is about $4.3 billion in arrears on bills.

AFSCME 31 represents more than 35,000 state workers. It’s contract expires in July.

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