Supreme Court says “no” to “friends” – AFSCME and our partners in the We Are One Illinois union coalition won a significant victory last fall when a circuit court judge ruled in favor of the coalition and found unconstitutional the new law (known as SB 1) cutting the pensions of active and retired participants in SERS, SURS and TRS. In his ruling, the judge also made permanent the injunction the coalition had previously secured barring implementation of the law during the course of the legal proceedings.
But, as predicted, that victory is far from final. On January 12, the State petitioned the Illinois Supreme Court to overturn the circuit court decision and uphold the new law. The Attorney General is arguing that the state’s fiscal crisis is so severe that its “police powers” should be allowed to override the constitutional protection afforded to public employee retirement benefits. The State asked for – and was granted – an expedited hearing schedule that would allow for a final ruling in the case as early as May. Under this schedule, the union coalition’s brief is due on February 16.
Then last week, with no advance warning, ten different amicus briefs were filed in support of the State’s position. An “amicus brief” is a “friend of the court” filing, intended to supplement or bolster a particular legal argument. The briefs were filed by an array of groups, including the Civic Federation, the City of Chicago, the Illinois Municipal League, the Illinois Policy Institute and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club. We Are One attorneys asked the court for a 30-day extension to have time to respond to the hundreds of pages of legal argument that the briefs contained..
But the Supreme Court took a different tack. It refused to accept any of the amicus briefs, noting that it had already granted the State’s motion for an expedited schedule. Given that the amicus briefs would not be allowed, the Court also denied the coalition’s motion for an extension. So now the case is once again on track to move relatively swiftly to a conclusion.
Rauner links fiscal woes to state worker pay and benefits – Illinois’ new governor appears to be trying to blame frontline state workers for the fiscal mess that politicians created.
According to media reports, in an appearance at the University of Chicago today, Gov. Bruce Rauner blamed Illinois’ $4 billion dollar budget shortfall on what he alleged were frontline employees’ high salaries and excessively generous benefits.
In truth, there is ample evidence that state employee wages and benefits are not wildly out of line or a major factor contributing to the deficit. Illinois revenue and expenditures have been out of whack for decades – and it was the state’s politicians who ran up the debt by regularly borrowing from employee pension funds.
We’ve heard this “blame state workers” song before. In fact, today Rauner used some of the exact same misleading “data” that his predecessor, Pat Quinn, tried to peddle in the last round of contract negotiations.
Politicians like Bruce Rauner have the bully pulpit at any hour of the day or night to advance their own agenda.
State workers, on the other hand, are out on the frontlines at every hour of the day and night doing the real work of state government – helping younger veterans to find work and providing care to those who served decades ago and are now frail and ailing; ensuring safety and security in our state prisons; responding to public health crises like the ebola scare and natural disasters such as tornadoes and floods; protecting children from abuse and protecting our air and water from pollutants; maintaining our state parks and conservation areas; monitoring the quality of care our seniors receive in nursing homes; analyzing crime scene evidence and inspecting rail crossings. The list, of course, could go on for pages.
Very few state workers have the time or access to tell their side of the story: the hard truths of understaffing, excessive overtime, and trying to do more with less in far too many instances.
That’s why AFSCME puts such a high priority on telling those stories – on getting the word out about the vital work that state employees do and the challenging conditions so many confront every day.
The “data” that Governor Rauner presented today is cherry-picked and massaged to shore up the story he’s trying to sell to voters, one in which the big corporations who’ve benefited from decades of state tax breaks get no blame at all for the budget shortfalls, while state workers who work hard to earn a living – and pay their full freight in taxes – are the villains. In the coming days, AFSCME will be working to tell the real, true story of what went wrong in Illinois – and what it will take to set things right.
State budget shortfall threatens services – There is no doubt that Illinois’ fiscal shortfall is real and serious. The rollback of income tax rates has opened up a gaping budget hole in the current fiscal year that will get even bigger in the coming year. Without significant new revenue streams, cutbacks on an unprecedented scale are all too likely. Money will begin running out in some agencies as early as May –without an infusion of funds, vital services could be severely curtailed and employees could lose their jobs.
State workers stand ready to do our part in this crisis. In many cases, we’re already going the extra mile to provide critical public services and many of us have ideas for how services could be provided more efficiently.
We’re also working to build support for the needed revenue. AFSCME and more than 100 other organizations have been working to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would allow for a fair tax system in our state. Illinois is one of only a small number of states that constitutionally prohibits tax policies that would allow for the wealthy to pay at higher rates than middle and low-income families. But the constitution can’t be changed unless citizens have the opportunity to vote at the ballot box – and Illinois citizens can’t have that opportunity unless 3/5 of legislators vote to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
So if your legislators tell you that cuts are the only solution to the state’s revenue shortfalls, make sure to ask them where they stand on the fair tax plan that would remove the constitutional barrier to the wealthy paying their fair share. And remind them that a version of this plan – an additional 3% tax on millionaires – was on last fall’s ballot as an advisory referendum and received overwhelming voter approval..
Contract negotiations set to begin – Negotiations on a new state collective bargaining agreement were scheduled to get underway in January, but CMS cancelled those sessions, citing the need for the incoming Rauner Administration to put its negotiating team in place and prepare its proposals.
CMS now has a new Deputy Director for Labor Relations and he has informed the Union that the Administration intends to be ready to come to the bargaining table in February.
Unfortunately, the new governor chose to use the occasion of his inaugural address to allege that previous union contracts were “sweetheart deals”, implying that the contract terms were unduly beneficial to state workers as a result of union political contributions.
Of course, nothing could be farther from the truth. Every union contract was hard-fought, sometimes taking many, many months – and lots of grassroots activism – to achieve. AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch responded swiftly to dispute the governor’s allegation:
The plain truth is that our union has always negotiated in good faith with governors of both parties…In every case, negotiations were tough but fair and based on mutual respect….the fact is that state employee pay increases have been in line with others in comparable jobs, as have the significant amounts employees contribute toward their health insurance…
As has always been the case, the AFSCME Bargaining Committee will come to the table prepared to work in good faith to reach a contract settlement that is fair to employees, that sustains the vital services the state provides, and that provides good value for taxpayers.
The Committee is made up of representatives democratically elected by the members of every local union. The proposals that the Union brings to the bargaining table are also a product of that grassroots democracy. The Bargaining Committee reviewed hundreds of proposed changes to the contract submitted by members all across the state to develop the package of proposals that will be presented to the Employer once bargaining gets underway.
It may be a new day in state government, as the governor has suggested. But the old values – respect and fairness for employees and commitment to the millions of Illinois citizens who rely on the services the state provides – are what our union has always stood for. And those are the values that AFSCME will continue to advance as we go forward..
Back pay update – For more than three years, AFSCME has been battling to secure all of the monies owed to all employees as a result of pay increases withheld in 2011. Over that time, the Union was able to win payment of all monies owed for employees in more than a dozen agencies. And as a result of an intensive grassroots lobbying effort last year, every employee in the remaining agencies received nearly half of the amount owed. Now the fight continues for the remainder of the money.
Last fall the Union won a very significant victory when an Appellate Court upheld an earlier court ruling that money owed to state employees pursuant to the terms of their union contract must be paid. But after receiving several extensions, which had the effect of staying the Appellate Court ruling, on January 13 the Attorney General filed a petition for leave to appeal that ruling with the Illinois Supreme Court. AFSCME attorneys will urge the court to deny the petition.
If the Supreme Court refuses to take the case, then the Appellate Court decision will stand and the Comptroller will be authorized to issue the checks. If the Supreme Court does take the case, it will likely be many months before a final ruling is issued. So AFSCME will return to the General Assembly now and once again seek to pass a supplemental appropriation for the funds needed to pay all employees in full.
Via AFSCME Council 31