Rauner backs down on firing union prison nurses

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REPRIEVE: Illinois Governor Bruce Raunder has rescinded his plan to fire 124 union nurses at state prisons and have them replaced with non-union nurses working for an out-of-state contractor. – State Journal-Register photo

By CARL GREEN

Illinois Correspondent

Springfield, IL – Labor can chalk up a victory over Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner after Rauner last week gave up on his plan to fire 124 union nurses at state prisons and have them replaced by an out-of-state contractor.

The Illinois Department of Corrections rescinded the layoff notices and said it would resume contract negotiations for the nurses with their union, the Illinois Nurses Association (INA)

The Legislature had already sent to Rauner Senate Bill 19, which would protect the nurses plus another 198 medical technicians and mental health professionals working for the Department of Corrections. The bill was passed by margins close to being enough to override a veto, including some Republican votes.

One of the bill’s chief sponsors, Senator Andy Manar (D-Bunker Hill) called the rescission “at least a temporary reprieve.”

“This whiplash approach to governing is giving a lot of people a headache,” Manar said. “It’s never too late to do the right thing, but this entire situation – and all the turmoil and stress for these workers and their families – could have been, and should have been, avoided if the Rauner administration simply did a better job at running the state.”

The other chief sponsor was Senator Sam McCann of nearby Pleasant View, the pro-Labor, Republican thorn in the governor’s side.

SUSPICIOUS MINDS

Despite the apparent victory for the union nurses, who work at 12 state prisons, Labor supporters in Springfield remained suspicious of Rauner’s motives for the decision and wary of a potential reversal.

Political observers speculated that Rauner may have changed his position to avoid a veto override and is restarting negotiations just to try to kill the bill – and then lay off the nurses later.

Senator Daniel Biss (D-Evanston), an announced candidate for governor, noted Rauner’s recent comments that state unionized workers would not be missed if they went on strike, even though the governor earlier had expressed support for paying them throughout the budget stalemate.

“The Rauner administration did the right thing by putting the brakes on its plan to outsource these prison nurse jobs, but I remain wary of the governor’s motives, particularly given his inconsistent and recently strident anti-union statements,” Biss said. “I wouldn’t blame any of these nurses if they aren’t ready to breathe a sigh of relief just yet.”

PASS THE BILL

The Illinois Nurses Association called on legislators to keep pushing for passage of SB 19 including a veto override if necessary. The Department of Corrections, the union said, has so far refused to repudiate its position that it does not have a duty to bargain in good faith over sub-contracting.

“It remains to be seen what the Department actually intends,” the union said. “Because of this uncertainty, INA is urging all Illinois legislators to continue working to support Senate Bill 19, which would halt further privatization of Illinois government jobs, including the 124 nursing positions.

“We believe a legislative remedy provides more assurance that the 124 nurses will be able to retain their positions and provide excellent health care to Illinois prisoners.”

The Department of Corrections’  (DOC) official response claimed there is potential for a contract agreement.

“We remain committed to working with the INA to avoid the potential layoffs and believe there is ability to reach common ground on compromise proposals that would allow DOC and INA to come to an agreement,” the department said.

Rauner had wanted to turn the nursing jobs over to the private company Wexford, which has a 10-year, $1.4 billion contract to provide medical services in Illinois prisons. So far, it has come under fire for providing both insufficient and improper care to the inmates.

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