Contract Negotiations On Hold. Negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement covering all AFSCME-represented state employees were set to get underway in early December. The AFSCME Bargaining Committee, made up of elected representatives from all state local unions, met in November to set its goals for this round of negotiations. But when the Committee met with Management for the first time on December 10, it faced an unprecedented situation. AFSCME was sitting across the table from representatives of the Quinn Administration, but all subsequent negotiating sessions would take place with the incoming Rauner Administration.
In fact, the next negotiating session was scheduled for January 13—one day after Bruce Rauner’s inauguration. Last week CMS notified the Union that the new Administration would not be prepared to come to the bargaining table on such a short timetable. So no negotiations are now scheduled to take place until February. With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire on June 30, that makes for a very tight negotiating process.
Also without precedent is the tone that the new governor has set going into these negotiations. While past Republican governors Jim Thompson, Jim Edgar and George Ryan have all been tough negotiators, they all operated on a foundation of respect for state employees, the work we do, and our right to be heard through the collective bargaining process. Rauner, on the other hand, has portrayed state workers as undeserving of the pay and benefits we receive. He’s decried the role that unions play in giving workers rights on the job and a voice in the political arena. And at times he’s seemed almost eager to force state employees out on strike and shut down the entire state government.
Of course, a lot of things are said in the heat of political campaigns that don’t necessarily indicate how a person will govern. After all, Rauner fiercely attacked “career politicians” throughout the campaign season, but now stresses his willingness to cooperate with legislative leaders for the good of the state. Certainly anyone truly concerned about the good of the state would also recognize that provoking conflict with its employees, dragging down morale, and possibly shutting down vital state services would be detrimental to that greater good.
We’d like to count on that kind of common sense and decency in our new governor, but it’s too early to know whether we can. So we have to be prepared for the sorry fact that irrationality and a lack of common decency could be the order of the day. That means that all of us need to start now to lay the groundwork to defend our fundamental collective bargaining rights, preserve the measure of economic security we’ve gained for ourselves and our families, protect the quality and integrity of the services we provide, and ensure that our workplaces are safe and workplace practices are just.
State Budget Heading For Free Fall. At the Labor-Management meeting on December 10, CMS drilled down to provide much more detail about the dire state of the state budget. Last spring the General Assembly declined to act on Governor Quinn’s call to extend the income tax rates currently in place, and so passed a short-funded budget. Now that those rates are set to expire on January 1—with no alternative revenue sources in sight—there won’t be sufficient income to meet the expenditures included in that budget. As a result, state agencies could quickly find themselves running out of cash. According to the information provided by CMS, state government will have a $1.9 billion shortfall in this fiscal year. In IDOC, personnel funding for some facilities will run out in April, and for all, in May. In DNR, GRF funding for staff runs out in April. In DHS, funding for FCRC staff is gone in May. And the list goes on. To manage these funding shortfalls, agencies may end up turning to layoffs as early as February. And absent a plan by the new governor to raise new revenues in FY 16, the drastic cash shortfalls will continue into the next fiscal year.
Understaffing Woes. Layoffs in agencies already cut to the bone are a recipe for big trouble. Illinois has the second lowest number of state employees per capita of any state in the country—and it shows! In agency after agency, employees are struggling valiantly to ensure that services are delivered and operations maintained while short as many as one-quarter of the needed staff. In some cases, it’s just impossible to keep up. State Police crime labs, for instance, are far behind in the vital testing they perform. In others, the result is inefficient for the state and harmful to employees: excessive amounts of overtime.
In the departments of Corrections, Vets Affairs, and Human Services/MH and DD Centers, where adequate staffing can be a matter of life and death, many facilities are once again turning to mandation. At Menard Correctional Center, OT is running between 3,000-5,000 hours per month. At Elgin Mental Health Center, OT hit 9,000 hours in September. Many other facilities are seeing similarly high totals due to staffing shortages. Local unions are working hard to enforce the agreement between AFSCME and the State that restricts mandatory overtime, but the only real solution is for elected officials to provide adequate funding to ensure adequate staffing for the services that Illinois citizens rely on.
Arbitration Wins Ensure Fairness.Two recent arbitration victories demonstrate the importance of contract provisions that help to ensure fairness for employees and for citizens. In 2012, DHS entered into a contract with Maximus, a contractor plagued with problems all across the country, to take over work normally performed by DHS caseworkers—the recertification of Medicaid applicants. The result was dismal on several fronts: The contract workers were poorly trained and their results riddled with errors, the cost to the state actually increased, and numerous needy families temporarily lost their access to medical care.
The Union grieved that the Maximus contract violated the subcontracting provisions of the collective bargaining agreement, and an independent arbitrator agreed, ordering that the vendor contract be terminated. Over the past 12 months, the state has been gradually bringing the recertifications back ‘in-house’, to be performed by DHS caseworkers—with more than 200 additional caseworkers hired as a result—and quality being restored to the work.
Another arbitration win came just last month when an independent arbitrator granted the Union’s grievance challenging the state’s unilateral changes to its travel reimbursement policy. The Union argued that the collective bargaining agreement requires the Employer to provide notice of any such changes in established policy and the opportunity to bargain over the impact. The arbitrator granted the grievance, ordering the Employer to suspend the enforcement of the rule change pending negotiations with the Union and to make employees whole for the commute mileage they would have received under the previous rule.
On The Legal Front. The lawsuit filed by AFSCME and our partners in the We Are One Illinois coalition seeking to overturn the new law that drastically cuts the pension benefits of participants in the SERS, SURS and TRS is on something of a fast track at the Illinois Supreme Court.
After a decisive win for the union coalition in circuit court this fall—with the judge ruling the pension law (referred to as SB 1) “void in its entirety”—the Attorney General immediately appealed to the Supreme Court and pushed for an expedited review. The Court did not grant the tightest schedule the AG sought, but it did accelerate the pace of the case, meaning a decision could come as early as June 2015. The circuit court made permanent the injunction that had earlier been granted to the We Are One Illinois coalition so that no changes can be made to employees’ or retirees’ benefits while the case is pending.
It appears that the Attorney General is also likely to ask the Supreme Court to overturn the unanimous ruling of a three-judge appellate panel which affirmed that back wages owed to state employees pursuant to their union contract must be paid. The AG has twice requested extensions of the timeframes for filing the appeal, which the court has granted over the union’s objection. The deadline for filing is now January 13.
Holiday Wishes. As the calendar turns to 2015, we can be thankful for the strong ties of solidarity we have forged through our union—even as we know these bonds will be tested in the days ahead. We especially recognize all those AFSCME members who will remain hard at work throughout the holidays, keeping prisons safe, caring for the vulnerable, responding to emergencies, and much more. But whether you are working or enjoying some well-earned time off with family and friends, we wish you a safe, healthy and joyous holiday season. We will see you in the New Year, with a renewed commitment to defending our rights, our jobs and the services we provide in our communities.
News Courtesy of AFSCME Council 31