35,000 AFSCME workers to vote on first-ever strike

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By CARL GREEN
Illinois Correspondent

Belleville – The 35,000 members of AFSCME Council 31 –the largest group of Illinois government employees – are now holding meetings to vote on authorizing their first strike ever.

Governor Bruce Rauner has refused to negotiate with the Council for a year and is demanding that members accept a contract entirely on his terms. The Council earlier this month adopted a new framework for negotiations that represents a compromise, but Rauner has not moved on it and exaggerated its cost.

“We are talking to all 35,000 members of the bargaining unit about a strike,” Eddie Caumiant, Council 31 regional director for southern Illinois, told the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council at its most recent meeting.

“The bargaining committee authorized a vote to occur between Jan. 30 and Feb. 19, so that’s what we’ll be doing. There are going to be votes all over the state. Right now, we are communicating everything we can to our members.”

Rauner’s demands include a four-year freeze on wages including step increases, unlimited outsourcing of jobs, and a doubling of employee health care premiums.

The union’s latest “framework for negotiation” would agree to the wage freeze but continue step increases to keep salaries from getting out of balance, and approve annual increases of 2.5 percent or 3 percent in health premiums, thus giving Rauner some of what he wants but not all of it.

COMPROMISE REJECTED

Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch issued a statement seeking support for the union.

“One year ago, Rauner walked out on negotiations for a new contract with state employees,” she said. “Then and now, employees have made clear their willingness to return to the bargaining table and work constructively to find common ground. But the governor has rejected compromise at every turn.

“Just as he has refused to work toward a solution to the state’s fiscal woes – harming citizens all across Illinois – he’s taking the same, counterproductive ‘My way or the highway’ approach with his own employees.'”

Caumiant noted that unions across the state have been stepping up to support the AFSCME workers.

“The outpouring of support from Labor is a testament to exactly what Rauner is and what’s in front of us, but also a testament to our strength and resilience. We’ve really felt that support,” he told the Labor Council. “We appreciate it, and we’re going to need it.”

He said the union is trying to get its members more involved in politics and with groups such as the Labor Council. Many of the members previously were reluctant to become more activist in their efforts, he said, but Rauner has changed their attitudes.

“This has been their awakening,” he said. “It really is sort of a different look at things than they’ve had.”

A HEAVY SPEAR

Many of the members are married to other AFSCME members, meaning a strike would leave their families entirely without financial support, Caumiant noted.

“They’re carrying a pretty heavy spear for all of us, and don’t forget that,” he said. “It’s a heavy lift for a lot of our folks, and they’re scared.”

After refusing to negotiate throughout 2015, Rauner went to the Illinois Labor Relations Board – which he appoints – and they declared negotiations to be at impasse, which allows the governor to impose his conditions unilaterally. He hasn’t yet done so because the union won a temporary stay in appellate court.

To Caumiant, AFSCME’s fight is all of Labor’s fight, since Rauner has also been working to undercut workers’ compensation and prevailing wages while instituting local “right-to-work” schemes, among other anti-union efforts.

“If we don’t fight, we’re all going to lose,” Caumiant said. “It’s very clear that Rauner wants to take this little model and take it everywhere else, not just in the public sector, but try to leverage everybody else at the same time.”

Lynch said the Council 31 members include workers who protect children from abuse, care for the aged and veterans, monitor air and water quality, respond to natural disasters and perform many other vital services that citizens expect.

“State employees do not want to strike,” she said. “But the governor created this crisis. He’s trying to get his way by pitting Illinois citizens against each other.”

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