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Thursday, Dec. 16, 2004 01:47 am

Labor pains

Peter Wagner and 38 colleagues at the Illinois Commerce Commission have waited for more than five months for action on their union-representation petition

Veteran state worker Peter Wagner says he never had reason to join a union -- until now.

An economic analyst with the Illinois Commerce Commission since 1994, Wagner became accustomed to decent benefits and yearly pay increases. But, like many state employees, he's about to enter his third straight year without a raise. Wagner, who earns $58,800 a year, says his take-home pay has actually dropped by about 4 percent because he must contribute more to the state pension plan.

"It's become pretty hopeless to people who wanted to have a career with the state," says Wagner, 41, a Springfield native who received a master's degree in engineering from Western Illinois University.

In June, Wagner and 38 of his ICC colleagues filed a petition to join the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. They're part of an emerging trend among government workers seeking union protections.

Indeed, the number of union petitions filed with the state has increased by more than 25 percent compared with last year, according to Fred Wickizer, acting executive director for the Illinois Labor Relations Board. The state received 197 petitions in fiscal year 2004, which ended June 30, compared with 145 in fiscal year 2003 and 100 in fiscal year 2002.

The increase in the number of representative petitions has been particularly dramatic among state employees, says Wickizer -- requests swelled from 10 in fiscal year 2003 to 51 in fiscal year 2004.

At the ICC, the number of employees who belong to a union more than doubled in the last year, from 33 to 68, and could climb even higher because petitions representing another 50 ICC employees, including Wagner, are pending, says agency spokeswoman Beth Bosch.

The dash toward unionization has been helped along by a law passed in 2003 that simplifies the application process. But it's Gov. Rod Blagojevich's effort to reduce budget deficits by streamlining government that has sent state workers scrambling to become dues-paying members, says Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31 of AFSCME.

"When there's layoffs, hiring freezes, and pension take-backs flying fast and furious," Lindall says, "the solidarity of voice that a union provides is valued by previously unrepresented employees."

Of the 54,440 state employees under the governor's control, 44,282 belong to unions. Of that number, 38,634 are represented by AFSCME, according to statistics compiled in October by the state's Central Management Services.

The recent surge in applications has even bottlenecked the state's process for enabling new union memberships. Some petitions have gone unanswered for more than a year. This is somewhat unexpected, says Wickizer, given that workers represented by union petitions must be told within 120 days whether they've been accepted.

In 2003 the General Assembly passed new legislation sponsored by House Labor Committee Chairman Larry McKeon, D-Chicago, changing how representation elections are held. According to the new law, if those workers can demonstrate that a majority of members of a proposed bargaining unit support union representation, they don't have to go through a formal election. These "majority interest" petitions can take as little as 30 days to process.

Wagner and his 38 colleagues filed a majority-interest petition that has languished for five months. The case has dragged on because CMS challenged the application, saying their positions include managerial duties -- one of several factors that would bar them from union membership, according to agency spokesman Willy Medina.

"There's a tremendous backlog," says Bosch of the ICC. "The Labor Relations Board doesn't usually hear so many contested cases in a year."

Wickizer admits that the processing time for some union petitions has slowed. Not surprisingly, he points to staffing cuts at his agency that have made it difficult to respond to the increased volume of contested petitions. In the last two decades, he says, the state Labor Relations Board has been slashed from 53 to just 21 employees.

In January, Blagojevich may sign into law an amendment to the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act that would further expand the rights of workers to organize -- and potentially overwhelm the labor board. The governor's office is reviewing the bill, says Abby Ottenhoff, a spokesperson for Blagojevich.

The amendment would reduce the size of potential bargaining units from 35 to just five and enable more than 35,000 public employees across the state to unionize, according to state Sen. Deanna Demuzio, D-Carlinville, one of the act's sponsors.

"We should allow all government employees to organize," says Demuzio, adding that other nearby states, including Iowa, Minnesota and Michigan, have similar laws.

Wickizer says that his agency is perceived as politically neutral and declines comment on the pending act. But he concedes that the already depleted labor board would face serious difficulties handling an influx of new union applicants.

"I expect we would have several hundred more cases than we've ever gotten before," he says.

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