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Thursday, July 14, 2011 12:15 pm

Why Quinn canceled union pay raises

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There are lots of different angles to Gov. Pat Quinn’s highly controversial decision to unilaterally refuse to pay scheduled, contractual pay raises to unionized state employees, so let’s take them one at a time.

• This is not “new” news: Chicago reporters are the only ones with access to the governor these days. (Quinn has held just one Springfield press conference in months). The city’s reporters probably don’t know that the House Republicans – and even some House Democrats – have been agitating since at least April to somehow stop AFSCME’s scheduled pay raises.

The issue burst into the open during a late April hearing of the House Human Services Appropriations Committee when the state’s director of Rehabilitation Services threatened to shut down the Illinois School for the Deaf and the Illinois School for the Visually Impaired if the committee followed through on its proposed overall spending limits. Republicans thundered that AFSCME’s pay raises should be cut before the administration even considered such a drastic closure ideas. Even Democrats got into the act during the hearing, saying the union should, at the very least, be brought to the table to talk about the upcoming raises.

House members openly admitted that they’d eliminated AFSCME’s pay raises from the budget when they overwhelmingly passed an appropriations bill on May 12. That approp bill shorted numerous agency personnel lines by millions of dollars. Rep. Bill Mitchell (R-Forsyth) even cited the elimination of the pay raises as a reason he voted against the bill.

So, the governor is absolutely right that this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

• Both sides have good points: The governor rightly says that the Illinois Constitution gives the General Assembly sole power to make appropriations, then correctly quotes the state’s Labor Relations Act: “Subject to the appropriations power of the employer, employers and [public employee unions] may negotiate multi-year collective bargaining agreements pursuant to the provisions of this Act.”

So, Quinn says, the lack of legislative appropriations for raises means there is no legal authority for the raises. And considering that the issue of union pay raises is part of the legislative record on that appropriations bill, it certainly sounds like a valid argument.

Then again, the General Assembly went farther than just cutting pay raises out of the budget. In some agencies, personnel costs were slashed well beyond the price of the scheduled raises. So, it may not be as cut and dried as Quinn says.

Plus, AFSCME Council 31 executive director Henry Bayer claimed last week that the statute Quinn is using as vindication was actually pushed by AFSCME back in the day. Bayer explained that the law was drafted to allow local governments to negotiate multi-year union contracts.

Union officials also point to a provision in their state contract which mandates that the administration “shall not unilaterally change any bona fide past practices and policies with respect to salaries, hours, conditions of employment, and fringe benefits enjoyed by members of the bargaining units without prior consultation and negotiations with the union.”  That sure looks like Quinn can’t do anything without first negotiating a change.

The union has taken its case to an arbitrator, which could force the administration back to the bargaining table, where the union is under no real obligation to concede anything. They’ve also filed a federal lawsuit.

• Hollow blame game: The governor blamed the General Assembly and Rod Blagojevich for his predicament. The legislature got the blame for failing to appropriate enough money to fund the pay raises, and Blagojevich was hit for negotiating the contract’s pay raises to begin with. Fair enough.

But Quinn is the one who really hemmed himself in by negotiating an election-year agreement with AFSCME to not lay off workers or close state facilities until next June. Without that agreement, Quinn wouldn’t be in such a bind today. Then again, without that agreement, Quinn might’ve lost the election.

• Contradictory explanations: The order to rescind the raises was issued by the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, which oversees the AFSCME contract. The original explanation I got from CMS was that they believed alternate strategies, like eliminating empty job positions, would invite an AFSCME lawsuit. However, eliminating positions has always been held forth as a way to manage the appropriations shortage, and it is clearly within the administration’s right. The governor then said that he wanted to keep the government functioning properly, so he decided to avoid eliminating positions. Quinn also said he’d be “happy” to meet the union in court when it files a lawsuit over the pay raise issue.
The whiplash is palpable.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.
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