Unions Win Contract Vote, But Path For Workers' Futures Remain Uncertain

Feb 16, 2016

Credit Chicago Teachers Union

Despite unions winning a small victory Tuesday in the Illinois House, state workers' future salaries, benefits and even a potential strike remain in limbo.

After hours of debate, labor got its desired result: passage of legislation that would solve collective bargaining disputes by way of arbitration.

Its supporters say it'd also do something even more important, by preventing a government shutdown. The bill says Gov. Bruce Rauner can't lock out workers, and workers can't strike.

"Let's keep state government open. Let's keep state government moving efficiently. And let's keep the parties at the table," said Rep. Chris Welch, a Democrat from Hillside and the plan's sponsor.

It's timely: after a year of negotiations with the state's largest public employees union, AFSCME, Rauner says the two sides are so far apart, he wants to end talks.

If he's allowed to do that, AFSCME could be forced to accept Rauner's offer -- terms the union doesn't like -- or else go on strike.

Labor says workers will get a better, more fair shot with arbitration. But Republicans say it's changing the protocol of negotiations in the 11th hour, to benefit AFSCME at a hefty cost to taxpayers.

It's the second time this measure's been before the Illinois House; because a previous vote was held over the summer, legislative rules required a supermajority of 71 votes were needed to pass it. That effort fell short, in part because one Rep. Ken Dunkin, a Democratic lawmaker, skipped session the day of the vote -- igniting a fissure between Dunkin and his fellow Democrats, and earned him a primary opponent.

Dunkin broke ranks with the resurrected arbitration bill Tuesday, and voted no. Dunkin says he's been with unions most of the time in his 13-year career in Springfield, despite his recently soured relations.

"They have no loyalty to any black politician in the General Assembly," he said. Dunkin says he wanted a last-minute change to the legislation to help black and Latino state employees.

Welch, who like Dunkin is black, says it was too late to make such a change as it had just been introduced on Tuesday, but would support the idea in the future.

The measure now only requires a simply majority to pass, and it received one -- the final vote was 67 to 46. But that's not enough to override any future veto from Gov. Rauner.

Rauner's spokesman Lance Trover issued a statement calling the plan a "tax hike masquerading as a labor bill." “This is an unprecedented piece of legislation aimed only at Governor Rauner and a blatant attempt by career politicians to force a tax hike and help AFSCME secure a special deal by changing the rules of the game in the fourth quarter," Trover said.

The measure now advances to the state Senate.

Meanwhile, the Illinois Labor Relations Board is deciding whether to grant Rauner's request to declare an impasse with AFSCME.