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Thursday, Feb. 24, 2005 03:22 am

Getting organized

Leaders of area small towns are bracing for a flurry of union activity because of a new law that makes it easier for government workers to organize.

Signed last month by Gov. Rod Blagojevich and effective on June 1, the new law allows government units or departments with five or more workers to seek union representation. Previously the threshold was 35, preventing public employees in many of the state’s smallest towns and villages from organizing.

Many Springfield and Sangamon County employees are already unionized, but that’s not true of workers in the dozens of small, incorporated municipalities outside the capital city.

Government leaders in these communities worry about the cost of paying unionized workers more and retaining legal counsel to help with the complexities of collective bargaining.

“Without having to express it in curlicues and stars, it’s a good, cheap freebie the governor put in for his former union supporters,” says Dave Armstrong, mayor of Rochester. “It will make it more difficult for village officers in small municipalities who don’t have the expertise to deal with a union. Most likely they will deal with a professional union person.”

Petersburg Mayor Diane Kube says she has no problem with unions from a managerial standpoint but worries about the financial impact. “I don’t know if it would cost the city on the bargaining issue alone,” she says. “Bargaining alone will be very costly to the city. We’d like to stay in the black.”

“This is not a good financial time for any city,” Kube says.

The Illinois Municipal League, which fought the bill, has estimated that about 25,000 workers statewide are newly eligible for unionization thanks to the law, and the organization is already hearing from concerned members.

“Local governments call to reiterate to us that it’s a horrible bill, especially now that they are facing financial difficulties,” says Joe McCoy, the league’s legislative associate. McCoy says the change in the law was a plum for unions that keep losing ground among private-sector workers.

Nationally, 12.5 percent of workers were represented by unions in 2003, down from 23 percent in 1979. Most of the drop, however, has occurred in the private sector — from 22 percent in 1979 to 8.2 percent in 2003. Among government workers, it’s a different story: 36.4 percent belong to unions, according to the latest U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

 “One of the only places unions still have good presence is the public sector,” McCoy says.

And that presence will only get stronger if Sean Stott has his way. Stott, lobbyist for the Laborers’ International Union of North America, says that his union, which already represents about 8,000 public-sector workers in Illinois, is gearing up for an organizing push.

“We’re going to utilize the law to help workers in smaller communities get bargaining rights,” he says. “We feel that all workers should have the opportunity to have representation.

“This doesn’t require them to join; it simply gives them the same rights as employees in larger units,” Stott says. “The bottom line is that it is giving them the same level playing field.”

The village of Buffalo is too small to be affected even by the lowered threshold, but that doesn’t keep trustee and acting Mayor William Vetter Jr. from voicing concern. Small towns, Vetter says, move employees around to perform different tasks: “The guy who cleans the village hall also drives the village truck.” A union contract could end up locking workers into specific job descriptions.

Before retiring, Vetter was the state technology officer for the state’s Central Management Service, responsible for supervising 500 to 600 people. Most were represented by unions, but that was fine: “They didn’t have to move around,” Vetter says.

“We are getting closer and closer to saying that anyone who works [for a city] has to be union,” he says.

Stott disagrees. If a government unit is organized, he says, employees won’t be required to join and pay dues. Laborers’ contracts, however,  include a “security clause,” which allows the union to assess “fair share” dues on nonmembers to offset the cost of representation in bargaining and presenting grievances.

Sherman Mayor Frank Meredith supports the idea of collective bargaining — “Everyone has the right to organize,” he says — but he worries about the financial impact. “There are only so many dollars a community has,” he says. “I spend many nights trying to figure out how to juggle monies to meet our obligations as it is. The process of developing bargaining will come out of the same pot as that for salaries.”

When people work for smaller communities, they usually understand that there is a limit on what they can expect to be paid, Meredith says: “Public service is not a career in which you get rich. I don’t do this job for the money.”

Meredith isn’t even sure that Sherman, with seven employees, is subject to the new law. Two of the employees are the mayor and the police chief — and, as managers, they are likely ineligible.

Although it was one of the most visible in lobbying for the lowered threshold, Laborers’ International is only one of several unions that’s likely to take advantage of the change in the law.

Unions such as the Service Employees International and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters have already made significant inroads among public-sector employees.

Tony Barr, president of Teamster Local 916, says that his union has already “talked to several groups about organizing.” Until the law changed, the potential bargaining units were just too small. “This puts a whole new light on it,” he says.

The Teamsters filed a petition in September to organize the Riverton Police Department, but the petition was dropped because the department only had a half-dozen people, says John Meyer, village attorney. Meyer says Riverton’s mayor, Joe Rusciolelli, has had a recent inquiry from a union. Meyer says he doesn’t know which union; Rusciolelli referred union-related questions to Meyer.

Government officials who are concerned about workers’ getting organized may want to check with Del McCord, village administrator of Chatham, where most employees have been unionized for some time.

McCord says that collective bargaining gave village officials the ability to talk about financial realities: “Everything was laid out on the table.”

“People thought their salaries and benefits would go way up,” he says, “but when they got a good look at city finances, they knew why they wouldn’t.”

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