SPRINGFIELD — Illinois could finally see the resolution to one of the longest running labor disputes in the state’s history.
That’s the unresolved negotiations between the governor’s administration and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, the labor union that represents by far the largest bloc of state workers.
The union and Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration have been unable to reach agreement on a new contract even though the old agreement expired at the end of June 2015, barely six months into Rauner’s term.
Now Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker has said he will restart negotiations with the union sometime after he takes office Jan. 14. Just when that will be is unclear. Neither Pritzker’s staff nor the union would put a date on when they expect talks to resume, although AFSCME said it hopes it is no more than a matter of weeks.
Both sides issued statements about their willingness to resume talks toward a new contract.
“Unlike Rauner, J.B. Pritzker has made clear that he values the services public employees provide, he understands that working people need strong unions to have a voice and improve their lives and he respects the collective bargaining process,” said AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. “Certainly we will have our differences, as we do with any governor or other employer, but we can address them when both parties work together in good faith.”
“J.B. looks forward to both representing the interests of taxpayers and negotiating with AFSCME in good faith,” said Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh. “J.B. believes in bringing fiscal stability back to the state of Illinois and in the collective bargaining process that supports working men and women.”
AFSCME and the Rauner administration began negotiating months before the contract expired in 2015, but failed to reach an agreement. The two sides haven’t negotiated since January 2016 when the Rauner administration declared the two sides were at impasse. If the two sides were at impasse, it opened the door to the administration to impose its contract terms on the union. Among other things, the administration wanted a four-year pay freeze and increases in health insurance costs that the union said represented a 100 percent increase for its members.
AFSCME said it didn’t believe talks had stalled to the point of impasse and fought the administration. The issue ended up in court. The most recent ruling in the case came from the Fourth District, although its ruling wasn’t the final word on the impasse issue.
The court sent the case back to the Illinois Labor Relations Board with a directive that the board better explain how it arrived at the conclusion the two sides were at impasse. The board used a different standard than it had used previously and the court wanted to know why. Absent that, the court said the ILRB had to evaluate the impasse based on the standard it had previously used.
Lindall said the court ruling notwithstanding, all the two sides need to do is agree on a date to resume talks.
When they do resume, they will be conducted against a backdrop of the state’s ongoing financial problems. The Rauner administration last week issued its annual Economic and Fiscal Policy Report that estimates the current budget has a $546 million hole in it. Others have put the deficit at twice that amount. Pritzker has said the deficit in the current budget is an issue he wants his budget transition committee to address.
The report from Rauner’s budget office also says there is a “potential liability range of $170 million to $500 million” from the AFSCME impasse case, an apparent reference to the unresolved issue of paying automatic step raises to employees eligible to receive them.
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The administration stopped paying those step raises when the old contract expired in 2015. The courts subsequently ruled they should have been paid even without a new contract in place. The administration then argued it should only have to grant raises up to early 2016 when it declared talks at an impasse.
However, there won’t be a question of impasse if the two sides resume negotiations after Pritzker takes office. It is unclear, though, when the money for the step increases would be paid, particularly since the General Assembly has not approved an appropriation to pay them. When it happens, the Rauner administration said “any required payment of these additional costs would further exacerbate the fiscal year 2019 general funds budget deficit.”
AFSCME has asked the ILRB to order the immediate payment of the step raises, but as recently as Nov. 14, the labor board has refused to do that.
Former Comptroller Dan Hynes, who chairs Pritzker’s budget transition committee, agreed that issues of the union contract along with how to address the ongoing bill backlog are two of the major problems that have to be tackled by the committee.
“The contract negotiations with AFSCME need to take place and we’re going to have to come to resolution there and there’s going to be some costs associated with that,” he said.