“Don’t Dictate—Negotiate!” Illinois State Workers Authorize Strike

Chris Brooks

The vote is an escalation in the two-year conflict between the state’s largest union and Gov. Bruce Rauner. (AFSCME Council 31/ Twitter)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Labor Notes.

For the first time in four decades as a union, 28,000 Illi­nois state work­ers could be going on strike, fac­ing down a Repub­li­can gov­er­nor who cam­paigned on the promise to force a show­down with the union.

In a 20-day vote that end­ed Feb­ru­ary 19, mem­bers from the 70 locals that com­prise AFSCME Coun­cil 31 vot­ed in favor of strike authorization. 

Eighty-one per­cent of mem­bers vot­ed yes to give the bar­gain­ing com­mit­tee the author­i­ty to call a strike,” said Rober­ta Lynch, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Coun­cil 31, at a press con­fer­ence announc­ing the results.

The vote is an esca­la­tion in the two-year con­flict between the state’s largest union and Gov­er­nor Bruce Rauner.

Coun­cil 31’s con­tract expired June 30, 2015. In Jan­u­ary 2016 Rauner declared the union and state at impasse. Since then he has refused to bargain.

On the cam­paign trail, Rauner cit­ed Pres­i­dent Ronald Reagan’s blow to the Air Traf­fic Con­trollers (PAT­CO) as inspi­ra­tion for how to deal with the state’s union­ized work­force. Rea­gan per­ma­nent­ly replaced 11,000 strik­ing fed­er­al employ­ees in 1981, in one of the most dra­mat­ic gov­ern­ment acts of union-bust­ing in U.S. history.

I may have to take a strike and shut down the gov­ern­ment for a few weeks and kind of redo everybody’s con­tract,” Rauner told an audi­ence of enthu­si­as­tic Repub­li­cans in a video that sur­faced dur­ing his 2014 cam­paign. I will do it proudly.”

His admin­is­tra­tion has also float­ed the pos­si­bil­i­ty of deploy­ing the Illi­nois Nation­al Guard to replace strikers.

Have a heart”

Now the union faces the chal­lenge of mak­ing good on its threat of an open-end­ed strike, despite its lim­it­ed his­to­ry of mil­i­tant action and lack of a strike fund. The AFSCME inter­na­tion­al has said it will help out finan­cial­ly in the event of a strike.

Coun­cil 31 has run strikes in coun­ties and in spe­cif­ic indus­tries, but has no his­to­ry of statewide strikes.

Mem­bers of the Alliance for Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vices—a coali­tion of state work­ers, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, and dis­abil­i­ty rights activists — did­n’t wait for an autho­riza­tion vote before begin­ning to prepare.

We’ve been out there doing strike train­ing,” said Local 2858 Vice Pres­i­dent Eli­jah Edwards. We’re invit­ing peo­ple from oth­er unions who have actu­al­ly done strikes, like Chica­go Teacher activists and ARISE Chica­go, to come and talk.”

In a Valentine’s Day protest, mem­bers deliv­ered hand­made valen­tines to the gov­er­nor ask­ing him to have a heart,” reverse the cuts to pub­lic ser­vices, and bar­gain with the union.

Bud­get held hostage

This show­down was fore­shad­owed in a 2012 op-ed Rauner penned for the Chica­go Tri­bune. The future gov­er­nor claimed that Illi­nois was in a long-term death spi­ral” due to gov­ern­ment employ­ee labor unions.”

A ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist and alleged bil­lion­aire, Rauner ran on a plat­form of class war — promis­ing to slash the state bud­get, gut work­ers’ pen­sions, and bust unions.

His cam­paign attract­ed a small cir­cle of very wealthy sup­port­ers. Nev­er before in mod­ern Illi­nois pol­i­tics had so few peo­ple pro­vid­ed so much of the mon­ey for a cam­paign,” the New York Times reported.

Even after Rauner took office in 2015, he con­tin­ued to raise mil­lions in cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions. His for­mer aides cre­at­ed a statewide super PAC to tar­get law­mak­ers who weren’t on board with his agenda.

Illinois’s con­sti­tu­tion requires the gov­er­nor to present the leg­is­la­ture a bal­anced bud­get. Rauner respond­ed to the state’s fis­cal cri­sis by offer­ing a bud­get that would slash bil­lions by push­ing state work­ers off their defined-ben­e­fit pen­sion plan and onto a 401(k).

Democ­rats vot­ed it down. In response, Rauner has held the state bud­get hostage.

Scott Walk­er on steroids”

For a year and a half now, Illi­nois has been with­out a full oper­at­ing bud­get. Typ­i­cal­ly that would mean a gov­ern­ment shut­down, but a series of court orders and stop­gap com­pro­mis­es have extend­ed lim­it­ed fund­ing to some services.

Some insti­tu­tions, like state uni­ver­si­ties, are con­tin­u­ing to oper­ate while receiv­ing no mon­ey from the state. Illinois’s unpaid bills are pil­ing up, and its cred­it rat­ing has been down­grad­ed to the low­est in the country.

We had a mild ver­sion of fur­loughs in 2016,” said Lin­da Loew, record­ing sec­re­tary for Local 1989 at North­east­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty. All the uni­ver­si­ty cam­pus­es had to go into their reserves to pro­vide assis­tance to stu­dents and pay for oper­a­tional expens­es. This reduced the cred­it stand­ing of the uni­ver­si­ty to just above junk status.

Now there are meet­ings all over cam­pus to try and fig­ure out what we can do to keep the doors open anoth­er semester.”

While state agen­cies scram­ble to find ways to keep pro­vid­ing basic ser­vices to the pub­lic, con­ser­v­a­tives have praised Rauner’s attack as Scott Walk­er on steroids.”

Local 2858 Pres­i­dent Diane Stokes agrees with the com­par­i­son. He is try­ing to break the Demo­c­ra­t­ic major­i­ty and reduce their pow­er in the state, turn a blue state red,” she said, like what hap­pened in Wis­con­sin, the birth­place of AFSCME.”

Unfair attacks

In the midst of this show­down between the gov­er­nor and the leg­is­la­ture, Coun­cil 31 has been try­ing to nego­ti­ate a new col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agreement. 

The same week that bar­gain­ing was set to begin, the gov­er­nor issued an exec­u­tive order direct­ing state agen­cies to stop col­lect­ing union fair-share” fees from state workers.

These are fees that non-mem­bers must pay in lieu of full mem­ber­ship to com­pen­sate for the ben­e­fits they receive from union rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Courts have so far refused to uphold the order, and state agen­cies have refused to car­ry it out.

The gov­er­nor came to the table in the first week of nego­ti­at­ing and attacked the union, before we could even talk about his pro­pos­als and changes in the con­tract,” said Edwards, who is a mem­ber of the union’s 250-per­son bar­gain­ing committee.

Rauner offered 200 pro­pos­als that work­ers say would open the door for mas­sive pri­va­ti­za­tion, impose a four-year freeze on wages, and increase their health care pre­mi­ums by 100 per­cent — equal to a $10,000 year­ly pay cut for the aver­age state worker.

His pro­pos­als were dra­con­ian,” Edwards said. He want­ed to increase the rights of man­age­ment, elim­i­nate just cause, allow lay­offs with­out call­back rights, and allow pri­va­ti­za­tion and sub­con­tract­ing of pub­lic employ­ee work to any ven­dor he or his des­ig­nat­ed indi­vid­ual chose with­out even deter­min­ing if it is eco­nom­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble for the state.”

The gov­er­nor claimed these con­ces­sions were nec­es­sary because the gov­ern­ment had racked up $130 bil­lion in unfund­ed lia­bil­i­ties after decades of short­chang­ing its pen­sion obligations.

If rat­i­fied, Rauner’s pro­pos­als would almost cer­tain­ly spread to oth­er state employ­ees, includ­ing AFSCME mem­bers at state uni­ver­si­ties. Anoth­er 9,000 mem­bers were exempt­ed from the strike vote because they work in secu­ri­ty jobs at the depart­ments of cor­rec­tions and juve­nile justice.

Any com­pro­mise on health care will impact all of us great­ly,” said Loew, whose local is cur­rent­ly in nego­ti­a­tions. His­tor­i­cal­ly, what the state gets is what the uni­ver­si­ty work­ers get.”

Forced into action

Expect­ing the gov­er­nor to push for a strike, Coun­cil 31 lob­bied for a tem­po­rary no strike, no lock­out” law that would require stalled nego­ti­a­tions to enter a medi­a­tion process end­ing in bind­ing arbitration.

A sim­i­lar process applies to work­ers in Illi­nois agen­cies des­ig­nat­ed essen­tial ser­vices,” such as fire­fight­ers and police officers.

Twice the leg­is­la­ture passed the AFSCME-backed bill — and twice Rauner vetoed it. The gov­er­nor was able to peel away enough Democ­rats to avoid a veto override. 

Mean­while at the bar­gain­ing table, the gov­er­nor showed no inter­est in nego­ti­at­ing. When we pre­sent­ed our coun­ter­pro­pos­als, they actu­al­ly pushed them aside and then read from a pre­pared state­ment declar­ing impasse,” said Edwards.

An admin­is­tra­tive law judge declared that a full impasse had not yet been reached, and that the gov­er­nor must return to the table. But Rauner appealed to the state’s Labor Board, made up entire­ly of appointees. The board declared that this was an impasse after all, paving the way for the gov­er­nor to impose his agenda.

AFSCME is appeal­ing the deci­sion in state court. A judge has issued a tem­po­rary stay that bars the gov­er­nor from impos­ing concessions.

Before announc­ing the strike vote, the union pub­lished a pub­lic let­ter to the gov­er­nor, agree­ing to some con­ces­sions on wages and health insur­ance as a frame­work for a con­tract set­tle­ment” if he would resume nego­ti­a­tions. Rauner refused the offer.

The union did every­thing in its pow­er to avert a strike,” said Loew.

Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor edu­ca­tor at Labor Notes, where he cov­ers the Unit­ed Auto Work­ers. He is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Writ­ers Union (UAW Local 1981).
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