By Mark Fitton
Illinois News Network
SPRINGFIELD – House Democrats on Tuesday again passed a bill that could send the stalled contract talks between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state’s biggest employee unions to a panel of arbitrators.
However, Democrats remain a handful of votes short of override strength should the Republican governor veto the bill as expected.
After a long and sometimes testy debate Tuesday afternoon, the House passed HB 580 to the Senate on a vote of 67 to 46 with two members voting present and three members not voting.
Rauner vetoed a nearly identical measure in the fall. While the Senate approved an override motion, House Democrats came up three votes short of the 71 votes needed in that chamber.
House Bill 580 would let arbitrators decide between the state’s and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees’ final contract offers.
Democrats says the measure is designed to protect state employees and keep state government open and providing services.
The GOP says it’s an unconstitutional move to strip Rauner of his authority to negotiate on behalf of the citizens who elected him and would mean taxpayer-funded gift to big unions of $3 billion or more over the life of a four-year contract — all while the state is in fiscal crisis.
Sponsoring Rep. Emanuel Chris Welch, D-Hillside, said his bill represents a fair way to untangle the year-long and so-far unproductive talks between Rauner’s team and that of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
If the administration can’t live with the decision of three arbitrators — one chosen by the governor’s administration, one by the union and the third drawn from a Labor Relations Board pool — the governor and only the governor can reject the arbitrators’ decision and make each side return to the bargaining table, Welch said.
But Republicans questioned the fairness of that arrangement, with House GOP leader Jim Durkin of Western Springs saying that puts the Labor Relations board or “third arbitrator” in a position of making the decision.
Durkin said 52 of the 54 eligible arbitrators in the current ILRB pool were appointed during the tenures of Democratic governors Rod Blagojevich and Pat Quinn.
“I think it’s a direct conflict with the governor’s authority,” said Durkin. “It takes him out of what I believe is his inherent role to negotiate labor contracts, as every other governor has, on behalf of the taxpayers of Illinois.”
State Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, also said the bill represented a “heads I win, tails you lose” deal to the unions.
Under HB 580, the union could — even in its worst-case scenario — string the talks out for three more years and essentially keep working under terms of the contract that expired at the end of June and which the state cannot afford to continue, Breen argued.
Welch said Rauner had himself to thank for the bind.
“I think this keeps the governor at the table, where he said he would be until he broke his promise,” Welch said.
But Republicans countered Rauner has lived up to the terms of agreements signed by the parties. Those “tolling agreements” say that should either side believe impasse has been reached, either can ask the Labor Relations Board for a ruling.
Rauner in January did that, saying the administration believed the two sides had hit impasse, or the point at which further talks would prove fruitless.
Democrats argue Rauner is intent on declaring impasse so he could put his administration’s terms in place and force a strike, thereby breaking the union.
“The bottom line is you have a governor who came into office after declaring that like Ronald Reagan he was going go to break the union by creating a strike situation,” said Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago. “Now, when you start with that negotiating position, you are inherently not negotiating in good faith.”
The governor has said he won’t lock anyone out and denies seeking a strike. His administration argues the contract terms sought by AFSCME and a half-dozen allied unions is unaffordable given the state’s debt, deficit spending and declining revenue.
“If it becomes law, it will dig Illinois’ fiscal hole even deeper, further squeezing social services and, ironically, it will lead to layoffs,” Rauner spokesman Lance Trover said in a statement released Tuesday afternoon.
Trover called the measure a tax-hike masquerading as a labor bill.
“Public service workers want an agreement that’s fair to all,” AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said in item on the union’s website. “Submitting our differences to an independent third party can ensure working people are treated fairly and public services are not disrupted.”