Back to court for state and its unions

AFSCME and others seek wages, increases and medical payments

By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network

BELLEVILLE — State employee unions have returned to court in an effort to lock in continued pay for the fiscal year, get medical claims paid, stop layoffs and retain step pay raises and semi-automatic promotions despite lack of a contract.

At the end of June, Illinois entered fiscal year 2016 without a budget and without new labor contracts, and its biggest unions sought to make sure their members in state government continued to be paid.

The unions have so far succeed in the courts, and their members continue to work and to be paid despite the lack of a state budget or specific appropriations for payrolls.

On the bargaining front, the unions — led by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 —  so far have agreed to three “tolling agreements” with first-term Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration.

In those agreements, both sides promise to stay at the table and work toward a new contract without threat of lockout or strike.

Now, by way of an amended complaints filed in St. Clair County Circuit Court on Sept. 4 and on Friday (Sept. 18), the unions are asking the court to again intervene.

“The administration has received a copy of the complaint and is currently reviewing it,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said earlier this week.

Among other things, the unions ask the court to find that any refusal by the state to pay wages in the current fiscal year would be an impairment of contract in violation of the state constitution.

They also argue employees covered in collective bargaining agreements cannot be laid off unless the layoff is due to lack of funds, lack or work or some other reason spelled out in the bargaining agreements.

The unions seek an injunction barring 158 layoffs now scheduled for Sept. 30. They argue the state’s “lack of funds” reason is “demonstrably false.”

The unions say there’s enough money in the state treasury to continue employing the workers  facing layoff.

The unions also appear to argue that step increases and semi-automatic promotions are rightfully part of the pay their members should receive.

“The state has refused to pay employees for their step increases pursuant to these step plans since since July 1, 2015,” according to the complaint. “In addition, state employees covered by the AFSCME agreement earn salary increases as they progress through their levels of of their classification series by virtue of their time in each title of the series. The state has refused to allow such progression since July 1, 2015.”

On Friday, the unions asked the judge to allow a revision to their filings. They cited the state’s recent disclosure that Illinois won’t be able to cover medical provider billings for thousands of employees, retirees and dependents in the state’s self-insured programs.

“This possibility will inevitably deprive many participants of the insurance provided by their labor agreements and employment contracts,” according to pleadings.

The unions seek relief by way of two strategies, the first being an impairment of contract argument and the other a request for an injunction to aid in arbitration of pending grievances.

The unions argue state employees shouldn’t be caught in the middle when elected leaders can’t agree.

State “employees are now pawns in the political dispute over the state budget,” the complaint said. “They and their families deserve better.”

In their latest agreement to continue negotiations, which was signed Sept. 8, the Rauner administration and AFSCME Council 31 included language acknowledging the two sides did not agree on step increases and semi-automatic promotions and made clear neither side conceded those points.

The agreement also included language saying each side retained all legal rights.

That deal to keep talking — the third such agreement in light of the June 30 contract expiration — came six days after the unions suffered a narrow defeat Sept. 2 on the hotly contested “no strike-no lockout” bill, which the unions backed and the governor opposed.

The plaintiffs in the St. Clair County lawsuit include AFSCME, as well unions representing police officers, teachers, nurses, laborers and others. In total, they represent about 40,000 state employees.

Defendants include the governor, Comptroller Leslie Geissler Munger and Tom Tyrell, who is the director of the state’s Department of Central Management services.

The state has yet to file its answers to the union’s new complaints, and no hearing date had been set as of Friday afternoon.

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