On the 48th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Illinois religious leaders urged Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature on Monday to resolve state employee contract negotiations in a "peaceful manner."
Monday marks 48 years since King was killed in Memphis, where he was supporting striking sanitation workers represented by AFSCME.
The Rev. Robert Jones of Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church on Chicago's South Side joined other faith leaders and state workers, represented by AFSCME Council 31 and SEIU* Healthcare Illinois, during a Monday morning press conference organized by Arise Chicago.
"We come together today because Dr. King's message of what government should be continues to resonate. We want Illinois to be a place where no one is left behind," Jones said at the Chicago Temple building. "We want Illinois to be a place where service providers are not demonized but cherished for their sacrifices that they make and respected for the professional services that they provide. This is the kind of Illinois that we want."
In Illinois, the Rauner administration has yet to reach contract deals with AFSCME Council 31 and SEIU Healthcare Illinois. Both unions saw their contracts with the state expire on June 30.
Jones was among over 150 religious leaders who signed an open letter to Rauner and the Illinois General Assembly today. The letter's signees want "our government leaders to make Illinois a place where labor issues can be sorted out in a peaceful manner, which will include mediation and arbitration," Jones said.
"We call upon Governor Rauner to work constructively through the established bargaining process to reach a resolution, rather than intensifying conflict," the faith leaders said in their letter. "We call upon you all to take steps that would allow a process of mediation and arbitration with the public employee union that is far more effective than confrontation, especially in our battle-weary Illinois. We call upon you all to take measures that promote a peaceful path forward that will best serve all of the people of Illinois."
In January, the administration asked the state's Labor Relations Board (ILRB) to determine whether contract talks with AFSCME are at an impasse.
"At the bargaining table, AFSCME made clear that they are unwilling to negotiate any contract similar to the ones agreed to by 17 other labor unions, which in many instances, were ratified by more than 80 percent of union members," the administration said in a statement announcing its request for a state labor board ruling.
Those at today's press conference spoke in support of pending state legislation seeking the use of binding arbitration to resolve labor disputes between the Rauner administration and unions.
The bill, similar to one vetoed by Rauner last July, would prohibit a state worker strike or lockout and instead send the issue to arbitration in order to reach a resolution. The House failed to override Rauner's veto of the high-profile labor bill last year.
Rauner claims that the binding arbitration bill could result in higher costs for the state.
Stephen Mittons is an AFSCME member who works as a child protective investigator with the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. He described the administration's contract proposals as "extreme."
"For example, the administration is pushing to double state employees' health care costs -- either by doubling our premiums or steeply increasing out-of-pocket costs -- dropping Illinois to the bottom tier among state health care plans," he said. "That's why we are supporting legislation that provides for an alternative to a strike as a means of resolving disputes in contract negotiations. ... Arbitration could avert a strike or the imposition of unfair terms on state employees and can provide an incentive for both parties to reach an agreement at the bargaining table in a timely manner."
Another AFSCME member, Darneice Cooper, a caseworker with the Illinois Department of Human Services, said her and other state workers are seeking a fair contract and want to "protect the services" they provide.
"We think the best way to do that in our current situation is through mediation and arbitration," she said. "We hope the governor and the General Assembly will heed the call by religious leaders around the state so we can all move Illinois forward."
Flora Johnson, chair of the executive board of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, also expressed concern over the items proposed by the administration as part of contract negotiations with her union.
"At the bargaining table, the governor is seeking to strip our workforce, already the lowest paid in the state, of wages, training and their health insurance," she said.
Johnson also denounced the long-running state budget impasse in Illinois, which is negatively impacting higher education and a range of social services. At the center of the nine-month-old standoff is Rauner's pro-business, anti-union policy agenda, which the governor wants tied to the budgeting process.
No state budget agreement is in sight as the legislature kicks off its spring session today.
"We are here to commemorate the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King. He understood the direct link between racial justice and economic justice, and that is why he died supporting the union movement," Johnson added. "It is no coincidence, in my mind, that the cuts and disruptions being enacted by Governor Rauner fall disproportionately on the heads of women and people of color. This is wrong, and we are called by our conscience to stop him. Only the labor movement can check the greed of corporations, and only by working together will we of the labor movement be able to stop the reckless cruelty of Bruce Rauner."
A request for comment in response to Arise Chicago's press conference and the letter signed by religious leaders was left with Rauner's office.
UPDATE 1 (5:25 p.m.): Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly pointed out to Progress Illinois that three of the five members on the ILRB were appointed by former Gov. Pat Quinn, adding that the senate, which has a supermajority, confirmed everyone who is sitting on the board.
"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," Kelly told PI. "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."
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