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Thursday, June 29, 2017 12:08 am

Other unions dealt with Rauner. Why not AFSCME?

A closer look at the governor’s claim his contracts with smaller unions show he’s labor’s friend

Significant points of contention remain between AFSCME and Rauner over health care cost sharing, wage freezes and the length of the work week.
PHOTO COURTESY AFSCME

 

The Better Government Association is a 94-year-old full-service, nonpartisan Chicago-based watchdog organization that shines a light on government, holds public officials accountable and engages citizens through investigative journalism, public policy advocacy, open records lawsuits and civic engagement.

Before becoming governor, Bruce Rauner openly disdained public sector unions. He ridiculed AFSCME, the union representing most state workers as “Af-scammy,” and labeled labor political donations as tantamount to bribes that let unions run roughshod over Illinois.

So, it’s not without irony that Rauner, now mired in a years-long contract battle with AFSCME, is attempting to gain leverage by invoking contract truces he has reached with other, much smaller, public worker unions.

The Republican has used his successful negotiation of agreements with units of the Teamsters, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and more than a dozen trade unions as evidence of his administration’s willingness to cooperate with labor.

At the same time, the administration has cast the 35,000-member AFSCME Council 31 as intransigent, greedy and, in the words of a 2015 press release, “on the opposite side of these negotiations from their own colleagues in organized labor.”

Those unions, though, resent being conscripted into Rauner’s campaign to vilify AFSCME. A closer look at the signed contracts posted on a state website reveals there’s no simple apples-to-apples comparison between his dispute with AFSCME and the deals with the smaller unions.

“He’s using this as a rhetorical device to essentially lie to the people of Illinois and say, ‘See, I want settlement, I want compromise,’ when what he really wants is division,” said Dan Montgomery, president of the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Montgomery’s union represents thousands of local school teachers, but just 44 of them at the Illinois School for the Deaf in Jacksonville are covered by a contract with the state. When that agreement was reached last year, Rauner hailed it as an exemplar of his administration’s “lasting partnership” with the union.

There are differences, some arcane and some stark, between the contract terms that Rauner agreed to with the smaller unions, which collectively represent 6,000 state workers, and those which he seeks to impose on AFSCME.

Significant points of contention remain between AFSCME and Rauner over health care cost sharing, wage freezes and the length of the work week.

The administration’s take is that size doesn’t matter when it comes to labor negotiations. Other unions managed to reach accord with Rauner, his top lawyers argued, while AFSCME has sought to thwart the governor at every turn.

“Generally (AFSCME) likes to point out that they are big and all these other unions are much smaller,” says Dennis Murashko, Rauner’s general counsel. “I don’t accept that... I think no matter the size of the union, no matter the size of the organization, if you want to, in good faith, come to an agreement with anybody on the other side, you can do that.”

Talks between AFSCME and the administration began in February 2015 and broke down in January 2016, when Rauner accused the union of bargaining in bad faith and sought to have negotiations declared at impasse by the Illinois Labor Relations Board.

AFSCME consistently has portrayed this as Rauner walking away from talks prematurely, and points out that before his election the Republican frequently telegraphed to campaign audiences that he could precipitate a state worker strike.

After a year of legal wrangling in which Rauner’s “last, best and final” contract offer was upheld by the labor board and AFSCME members voted to strike if the administration tried to impose the contract, the issue now is the subject of a lawsuit that could be tied up in the court system well into 2018 or longer.

Despite that uncertainty, Rauner factored in more than $770 million in anticipated savings from union contract changes into his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year, according to The Civic Federation.

In at least one case, the Fraternal Order of Police local that represents 99 state conservation officers accused the administration of misrepresenting the state of its contract negotiations in a zeal to portray AFSCME as unreasonable.

Shawn Roselieb, a member of the FOP labor council for the conservation officers, took issue with an administration news release claiming the two sides had reached agreement. “That’s a little misinformed,” said Roselieb. “We did negotiate on a couple of issues but (the contract) is still open and we’re still at the table.”

The conservation officers’ contract won’t be complete until Troopers Lodge 41, which represents Illinois State Police troopers, settles an ongoing dispute over health insurance. That issue is now the subject of an arbitration case.

One of the big issues in the AFSCME talks involves overtime pay. Currently, AFSCME members qualify for overtime when they work more than 37.5 hours a week, but the administration wants to change that to 40, which it says will both save the state $80 million over four years and bring AFSCME in line with overtime rules for the other unions.

At the same time, the administration wants to bar AFSCME members from counting vacation, holiday and sick time in the calculation used to reach the 40-hour threshold. Contracts with most of the smaller unions do not preclude vacation, holiday and sick time from being factored into the overtime floor.

The four-year wage freeze proposed in the AFSCME contract appears identical to what was accepted by all the unions that have negotiated agreements with the administration so far, but AFSCME says the trade union contracts still allow for increases under the state’s prevailing wage law, thus their wages aren’t frozen.

The state says AFSCME is twisting the contract’s language. While the Illinois Department of Labor uses monthly county-by-county surveys to set prevailing wages for private-sector workers employed on state public works projects, a different state agency sets prevailing wages for state employees covered by the trade union contracts.

Murashko made it clear that the administration has no intention of raising prevailing wages for state employees. “We do think of it as a wage freeze because it’s the wage that we control,” Murashko said.

The subject of health insurance is where making direct comparisons between the AFSCME contract and those signed by the Teamsters and trade unions becomes especially challenging.

Under the administration’s contract plan, premiums would roughly double for AFSCME members, who at present pay 17 percent of the cost of premiums while the state picks up the rest. Rauner wants to up the employee share to 35 percent.

That increase is in line with what the trade unions have also agreed to. But most of those small union contracts contain a clause stating that if AFSCME negotiates better terms, the trades will get them as well.

What’s more, contracts for the nearly 3,000 Teamsters union members contain an option for workers to drop the state insurance plan and move to union-operated plans. That holds the prospect of reducing premium deductions for Teamsters members and giving them more take-home pay.

The administration says the Teamster insurance agreement wasn’t born of arm-twisting.

“They wanted to reach a deal and that’s the fundamental difference,” Murashko says. “AFSCME from all their actions indicated strongly that they were just inclined to let this thing drag out because then they get status quo benefits and status quo is very, very good for them.”

Unsurprisingly, AFSCME has a very different take. Union spokesman Anders Lindall said the organization had negotiated contracts for more than 40 years with Republican and Democratic governors alike without a strike.

“Clearly, If Bruce Rauner had wanted a fair agreement, AFSCME’s track record shows we’re willing and able to reach one,” said Lindall.

Matt Dietrich is a Springfield-based freelance journalist specializing in state government and politics. His news career includes more than two decades at the
State Journal-Register and reporting jobs at newspapers in New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin. Most recently, he was founding editor of Reboot Illinois.

Also from Matt Dietrich, Better Government Association

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