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

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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