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Working In These Times

Monday, Dec 9, 2013, 1:01 pm

Will Power: 16-Day Strike Helps Public Workers Win Wage Increase

BY Matthew Blake

Prior to the contract agreement reached early Wednesday, Will County public workers had been on strike for more than two weeks. (AFSCME Council 31)  

On 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, union leaders and government officials in Will County, Ill., finally hammered out a contract agreement for county public workers after 15 months of negotiations and a three-week strike. Union members ratified the contract on Thursday with 95 percent support, ushering in four years of wage increases, in addition to an income-based sliding scale for worker contributions to healthcare premiums.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 1028 represents the workers, whose ranks include, among others, health and highway department employees and administrators at the county clerk’s office and courthouse. Dave Delrose, president of Local 1028, portrayed the strike and ensuing contract as a productive step toward "ensuring that county employees have the fair pay and affordable healthcare they deserve in return for their hard work."

In a statement released on Thursday night, Delrose continued, "By standing together, we reached a fair settlement that achieves these goals."

Will County executive Lawrence Walsh was less optimistic in his own public statement. Regarding healthcare, for example, he claimed, "Ultimately, no one was completely happy with these agreed-to amounts—which often means this was a true compromise."

Will County is less than an hour's drive southwest of Democrat-dominated Chicago, but politically, it is evenly mixed, with 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans making up the county’s board. Nick Palmer, chief of staff for Walsh, describes his Democrat boss as “fiscally conservative” but with a “pro-labor voting record” from his days in the Illinois Senate. 

The county is also growing—and fast. Its 2010 U.S. Census-recorded population was 677,560 people, a 34.9 percent jump from 2000, and the area increasingly serves as an intermodal transportation hub, with large supplier warehouses for major corporations. But despite this population increase, Will County is—like much of Illinois and the country as a whole—mired in a prolonged economic slump, with an unemployment rate of 9.1 percent as of August.

The county’s job opportunities first began to severely decline in 2008, coinciding with the national financial meltdown—and, as it happened, the last time Will County and AFSCME hashed out a contract. At the time, says AFSCME spokesperson Anders Lindall, AFSCME was sensitive “to the stock market crash and onset of the recession” and so did not demand an annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, to keep pace with inflation.

When the time came to hash out a new contract in 2012, however, the adjustment became a point of contention: union leaders claimed workers' salaries did not reflect inflation while government officials argued the importance of prioritizing all of the county's funding needs, not just employee wages. After much back-and-forth, the new contract, which ends in November 2016 and retroactively "starts" in December 2012, now includes a 4.5 percent COLA increase spread out over the duration of those four years. It also changes the employee wage scale, effectively giving all workers a 5 percent raise in June 2015 and two additional 2.5 percent raises during the contract's four-year span.

Another snag in contract negotiation had been the debate surrounding healthcare costs, with union leaders resisting higher worker contribution toward healthcare premiums.

"Traditionally, Will County has paid comparatively low wages, but let employees pay a little less for healthcare,” Lindall said in an interview Tuesday night, before the contract was agreed upon. “But Will County management wants to sharply increase healthcare payments."

Though the contract does include higher healthcare costs, they will rise gradually on a yearly basis rather than immediately spiking. They will also be "income-banded", meaning that workers who make lower wages will be expected to funnel a lower percentage of their earnings toward benefits. By 2016, the median worker contribution will be 10 percent of an individual employee's healthcare premium. 

The contract agreement marked the end of a 16-day, 1,000-worker-wide public employees' strike, which began on November 18 and was the first work stoppage Will County civil servants have initiated since the 1970s. During the strike, workers bombarded their community with rallies and demonstrations to drum up public support. On November 22, for example, AFCSME members disrupted a county board meeting as "workers chanted slogans, banged pots and implored board members to return to the bargaining table" according to a Herald-News account. Board members did return to the bargaining table on November 25, but discussions proved fruitless until Tuesday’s late-night session. 

Lindall says the strike impacted productivity all over Will County, underscoring the vital role public employees play throughout the region. He claims, for example, that Sunny Hill, a 238-bed nursing home in Joliet, Ill., hired temporary workers to replace striking caregivers, ultimately resulting in what he calls "inadequate" patient support at the facility. He also contends that some court cases and releases of county inmates were delayed in the past three weeks.

Meanwhile, although county officials do acknowledge some decline in services, they maintain that the government continued to function relatively well, even managing to process candidate petitions for elected office this week. Regardless, all Will County employees returned to work on Thursday.

Asked how Will County residents responded to the workers’ efforts overall, Palmer said, "Honestly, it’s been a mixed bag."

"Lots of people are saying, ‘Why can’t we do more for the union?' " he continued. "But people understand there is only so much money."

ASFCME is a website sponsor of In These Times.

Matthew Blake is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. He has written for the Chicago Journal, Washington Monthly, Washington Independent and The Nation, among other publications.

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