Saturday, September 3, 2016

Judge recommends continued negotiations over Illinois union contract

Dan Petrella Times Bureau

SPRINGFIELD — An administrative law judge has recommended that the Illinois Labor Relations Board send Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration and a union representing 38,000 state workers back to the bargaining table to continue negotiating over wages and health care benefits.

The Rauner administration asked the labor board in January to declare that contract talks with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 have reached an impasse, which could clear the way for the administration to impose its terms on the union. That, in turn, could precipitate a first-ever strike of state workers.

In a 250-page recommendation issued Friday, Administrative Law Judge Sarah Kerley found that the state and AFSMCE have reached an impasse on many issues, including wages and health care, but she recommends against allowing the state to impose its final contract proposal in full.

“If the State were able to implement its entire last, best, and final offer, the implications and impact would be so enormous that, when applied to this case, it would be destructive of the collective bargaining process,” Kerley wrote.

Although wages and health care benefits are among the issues on which Kerley thinks the sides are at an impasse, she recommended that negotiations continue on those subjects because the state hasn’t provided the union with sufficient information about its proposals.

On wages, the state has sought a pay freeze and the implementation of a merit pay system, while the union has sought across-the-board raises for its members. On health care, the state has pushed for union members to take on a greater share of their insurance costs, but the union thinks those proposals would shift too much of the burden onto its members.

Negotiations had been ongoing for nearly a year when the Rauner administration moved to have an impasse declared. The union has said for the past several months that it is willing to continue negotiations.

The administration has accused the union of making unreasonable demands at a time of unprecedented fiscal challenges for the state, but AFSCME counters that Rauner has an ideological bias against the collective bargaining rights of public workers.

While negotiations have been acrimonious, Kerley said both sides generally have bargained in good faith.

“Despite their many differences in philosophy and approach, I find that record before me, taken as a whole, reflects that each side sincerely hoped to reach agreement, though they had vastly different views of what that agreement should look like and had varying levels of optimism about whether they would actually be successful,” she wrote.

Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly said the administration appreciates that Kerley “concluded that we have been bargaining in good faith for a fair deal on behalf of taxpayers.”

“We are reviewing her opinion to evaluate the next steps as the rest of the agreed-to process continues,” Kelly said in a prepared statement.

Meanwhile, the union said it was largely vindicated by Kerley’s recommendation.

“We are pleased that today’s recommendation underlines what AFSCME has been saying all along,” AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch said in a written statement.

The union said it, too, is reviewing the recommendation, noting that it doesn’t think the two sides are at an impasse on some of the issues cited by Kerley.

“We hope the labor board’s final ruling will affirm the hearing officer’s recommended order to resume negotiations,” Lynch said. “But there is no need to wait — Governor Rauner should direct his representatives back to the bargaining table now, to work with AFSCME and develop a compromise agreement that is fair to all.”

The state and the union now have time to respond to the recommendation and to each other’s responses. The labor board could make a final determination at its November meeting.

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