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Thursday, April 7, 2016 11:29 am

Faith Coalition calls on governor to restart union contract negotiations

Pastor Silas Johnson (front), Pastor T. Ray McJunkins (right) and Rev. Martin Woulfe (left). Photo by Patrick Yeagle

The Springfield-based Faith Coalition for the Common Good today called on Gov. Bruce Rauner to restart  negotiations over union contracts.

The stalling of negotiation comes as Illinois enters its 10th month without a state budget, gutting many social service providers and threatening to shut down schools and other institutions.

"We have a lot of people depending on good collective bargaining," said Silas Johnson, Faith Coalition president and pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Springfield at a Faith Coalition press conference today. "That's how things work, that one side gives, the other side gives, and we come to a common ground so that everyone benefits."

While the governor has reached agreements with a handful of unions, workers covered by AFSCME, the largest state employee union, are still on the job after their contracts expired at the end of June 2015. Negotiations between AFSCME and the governor stalled in March after Rauner asked the Illinois State Labor Relations Board to step in. The board is due to meet next on April 12.

Although Rauner initiated arbitration by involving the board in his conflict with AFSCME, the governor opposes legislation that would send such cases to arbitration after 30 days without an agreement. AFSCME supports the legislation because it would prevent work stoppages, but Rauner says it would remove him from the collective bargaining process.

"Illinois has some of the hardest working employees, which is why Governor Rauner fought successfully to ensure they are paid despite the Majority Party's failure to pass a balanced budget," said Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly. "However, we must be realistic about the state’s current fiscal condition. The contract proposed by the administration is similar to the contracts agreed to by 17 other unions. It is fair to both state employees and taxpayers."

T. Ray McJunkins, pastor of Union Baptist Church in Springfield, and Rev. Martin Woulfe, who leads Abraham Lincoln Unitarian Universalist Church in Springfield, joined Johnson in calling on Rauner to restart negotiations.

Shatriya Smith, an AFSCME member and former employee at the Hope School, a Springfield institute for kids with autism, intellectual disabilites and developmental disabilities, said the state budget crisis is disabling communities around Illinois "due to the inability of our elected leaders to act responsibly."

Smith read a poem she wrote for her former students.

Dena McGill, a union employee with the Illinois Department of Human Services, said Rauner is "holding hostage the entire state budget in an effort to gain leverage to diminish our unions."

"It's because of employees like me at DHS that struggling families can eat, get medical care, so that they can survive as human beings," McGill said.

The budget crisis began last February when Rauner, a Republican, vetoed the budget passed by the Democrat-controlled Illinois General Assembly. While the governor has the ability to reduce appropriations with a "line item" veto, Rauner eliminated all but a handful of appropriations like school funding, saying the legislature's budget was unbalanced. He proposed an alternate budget which relied on about $2 billion in savings from reducing pension benefits, but political observers believe that plan would be struck down by the Illinois Supreme Court on constitutional grounds. Rauner has indicated he would support an income tax increase, but only if the legislature adopts pieces of his "Turnaround Agenda," a package of changes to state government. Many of the changes would curtail union rights.

The budget crisis could extend into the coming fiscal year, which starts on July 1, if Rauner and state lawmakers can't reach an agreement. The state Supreme Court recently ruled that a past AFSCME contract calling for back pay on delayed raises isn't enforceable because the legislature didn't appropriate enough money for the raises. That could mean that the current court order allowing state employees to get paid despite the lack of a state budget could be overturned, forcing a near-total state government shutdown. Such a shutdown would put immense pressure on Rauner and lawmakers to come to an agreement, but the resulting budget would likely contain deep cuts for programs across the board because of the state's rapidly growing backlog of bills and less revenue due to the expiration of the previous income tax increase.

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.


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