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Thursday, June 26, 2014 12:01 am

SIU makes up with AFSCME

Medical school claimed employees no longer belonged to union

Employees at SIU School of Medicine protested in April after being told they were no longer part of the union.
Photo BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

They took a firm stand, and then they promptly retreated.

In late April, SIU School of Medicine in Springfield surprised about 230 employees by not deducting their union dues from their paychecks. The reason? SIU had decided those employees were no longer in the union.

Last week, however, SIU backtracked completely when it reached an agreement with AFSCME Local 370, the union that covers SIU workers. Although the medical school denies having done anything wrong, it ceded every point of contention to the union, marking the end of a strange spat in which the university gained nothing but bad publicity.

The issue started over what AFSCME called a “clerical error.” Lisa Hensley, vice president of Local 370, told Illinois Times in April that her union had signed a contract with SIU which mistakenly contained outdated job titles for nine jobs, including certified medical assistants and workers who handle insurance, office duties and collections. The State Universities Civil Service System, which oversees certain positions in higher education, changes job titles from year to year, Hensley said, but the jobs remain essentially the same, as do the people working those jobs.

SIU interpreted the contract as excluding from union membership any titles that were not named. SIU spokeswoman Karen Carlson said in April that some of the jobs may actually have been different than under the previous contract.

“While some positions have duties that have not changed, that is not true for all titles referenced,” she said.

Either way, Hensley says, SIU had no legal right to decide that workers in those nine job titles were no longer union members. Under state law, that decision is made by the Educational Labor Relations Board, a state agency which mediates the relationships between universities and labor unions.

A memo from SIU to the workers claimed the school offered a proposal in which the jobs would have been covered under the new contract, but it says the union rejected the deal. According to the memo, that meant the excluded jobs were no longer part of the union.

The employees protested and submitted more than 100 union grievances to the school, but their grievances weren’t processed because the school again claimed they weren’t union members.

AFSCME also filed a charge of unfair labor practices against SIU with the Educational Labor Relations Board, which scheduled a hearing on the matter on July 15. However, attorneys on both sides decided to settle the case before the hearing date, and the resulting agreement is a clear victory for the union.

In the agreement, SIU agrees to once more recognize the employees as union members and pay the union $18,000 in union dues that the school previously refused to deduct from employees’ paychecks. The agreement replaces the outdated job titles with the new ones, and it requires SIU to post a notice to employees acknowledging their rights. The notice reads like something a misbehaving student is required to write on the blackboard as punishment.

“We will not unilaterally withdraw recognition of AFSCME as the exclusive bargaining representative of any or all of the employees in the AFSCME bargaining units,” SIU says in the notice. “We will not tell bargaining unit employees that you do not have the right to have a union representative present at an investigatory meeting at which you reasonably believe discipline may result. We will not interfere with your rights under the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act.”

For its part, the union agreed to withdraw its grievances and its complaint before the labor relations board.

Karen Carlson, the SIU spokeswoman, declined to answer questions about who at the school originally made the decision to stop recognizing the employees as union members.

“The personnel involved are not the issue,” she said. “We are pleased that it has been resolved.”

Erik Hostetter, a staff representative for AFSCME Council 31, the parent union of Local 370, says it’s unclear why SIU chose to start the conflict in the first place. The school had nothing to gain, he says, and was on shaky legal ground to begin with.

“Our position all along was that this was a blatantly illegal and immoral attack,” he said. “A lot of times with labor disputes, there’s some gray area. This was different. This didn’t require any good old-fashioned union stand. It was out of left field.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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