As the June 30 expiration date of AFSCME's collective bargaining agreement with the state approaches, a few dozen public Illinois employees rallied in Chicago for a "fair contract." Progress Illinois provides highlights from the rally, one of more than 100 events AFSCME members are holding this week across the state.
Chanting, "Respect our work. Respect our rights," a few dozen state employees rallied in downtown Chicago on their lunch break Wednesday to call for a "fair contract."
The protest, held outside an Illinois family services and employment security office building at 33 S. State St., was one of more than 100 similar events state workers represented by AFSCME are holding across Illinois this week amid negotiations between the union and the Rauner administration over a new labor contract.
AFSCME's current contract with the state expires June 30. After six months of negotiations, the two sides still appear to be miles apart on a new agreement.
"We do a hard job," said Timothy Lowe, a budget analyst for the Illinois Department of Employment Security. "We provide a lot of service to the public, and we just need a fair contract."
State employees and AFSCME officials at today's rally declined to discuss specifics about the union's demands and what the Rauner administration is proposing. According to media reports and an AFSCME memo, the administration wants to freeze worker wages and scale back health insurance benefits plus holiday and vacation days, to name a few of the state's proposals.
"We've agreed not to bargain in the press, but we're committed to bargaining at the table for a fair contract," said Kevin Roth, who works in the child support division of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services. "I will say, (the administration's proposals) are very draconian. They're about stripping protections, union rights, health and safety, pay, working conditions."
Anders Lindall, a spokesman for AFSCME Council 31, which represents some 38,000 state employees in Illinois, said the union's "priority is not a pay increase."
"Every working person in the state of Illinois and throughout this country deserves decent pay. They deserve health care they can afford for themselves and their families. They deserve some promise of security in retirement," he said. "Those are our principles. That being said, we certainly understand the times that we're in, and we're prepared to do our part."
Rauner argues that the current system of pay and benefits for state workers is broken.
"We have pensions that are unaffordable that don't really occur in the real world," the governor said Tuesday, reported the State-Journal Register. "We have health care benefits that are unaffordable ... and a pay scale based purely on seniority and not on productivity and saving taxpayer money. The folks in charge inside government don't like change, but it's for the best."
In the event that a new labor contract is not settled by July 1, Lindall noted that it has been common practice in the past for the two sides to agree to extend the terms of the existing agreement while negotiations continue.
"That's what we have offered. That's what we have done in the past, and that's what we hope will happen here as well," he said. "We're prepared to do the work that it takes to reach an agreement, and we're equally committed to settling a fair contract, but also to continuing to provide public services, and we hope that the administration shares that commitment."
"If that is true -- if the administration shares our commitment, both to a fair negotiation process and to maintaining public services -- then when July comes, that means that we just continue to go to work," Lindall added. "We continue to serve the people, and we continue to talk at the bargaining table."
The Illinois General Assembly recently approved AFSCME-backed legislation that would ban a state worker strike or lockout by the administration if negotiations break down over a new labor contract. The legislation, which is not expected to get Rauner's signature, would require binding arbitration to resolve disputes.
Lindall pointed out that in the 40 years of collective bargaining in Illinois, state employees have never been locked out by the administration or "forced" to go on strike.
"There's no reason why we can't remain at the table and continue to talk," Lindall said.
Roth said the legislation aimed at averting a strike or lockout "shows our commitment to keeping the state services going."
"We do not want a shutdown," Roth said, adding that Rauner "has talked publicly about resetting and shutting the state down."
"The public supports us, and they support services we provide, and they would not want him to shut the state down for his ideological agenda," Roth stressed.
Here's more from Roth and Lindall plus scenes from today's rally:
Wednesday's action comes amid an impasse in Springfield over the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which starts July 1. If an agreement is not reached by then, the government could shut down next month.
Faced with a $6 billion budget deficit -- due mostly to the January rollback of the 2011 temporary income tax hike -- Rauner has proposed a $31.5 billion spending plan, which calls for no new revenue and would slash funding from a range of budgetary items.
For their part, state Democrats have put forward a $36.3 billion spending plan that's $3 billion short. They have proposed some spending cuts and want to work with the administration in finding new revenues to tackle the budget.
The governor is refusing to sign an unbalanced fiscal plan and says he will not consider new revenue options unless Democrats go along with components of his controversial pro-business "Turnaround Agenda," like term limits, a property tax freeze and workers' compensation reforms.
Illinois Comptroller Leslie Munger on Wednesday warned that if a budget agreement is not reached before the next fiscal year begins, "Nearly all payments will stop on July 1."
There are some exceptions, Munger said.
"We will make the state's debt and pension payments," she said. "Retirees will still receive their benefit checks. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and assistance for the aged, blind and disabled will continue. And we can make most local government payments."
A government shutdown, Roth said, "would be very disruptive" financially to workers and their families as well as Illinoisans who rely on state services.