SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WCIA) — The administration of newly minted Governor J.B. Pritzker is preparing to enter renewed contract negotations with The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) after talks derailed between the state’s largest public sector union and the Rauner administration in 2016.
Despite objections from AFSCME, attorneys for the Pritzker administration filed a motion asking the Illinois Supreme Court to delay a January 24th deadline another 90 days to give the state and the union ample time to return to the bargaining table. AFSCME lawyers filed an objection to the motion on Friday morning.
“There’s no need for another extension or further review of the appellate court decision, which found that Bruce Rauner wrongly walked out on negotiations, falsely claiming the parties were at impasse,” AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall told WCIA.
“While we’re pleased that Governor Pritzker has made clear he intends to return to the bargaining table, that’s all the more reason to drop Rauner’s impasse appeal,” Lindall said.
The Appellate Court previously ruled the state was not at impasse with its workforce and sent the decision back to the Illinois Labor Review Board, a panel which currently has two vacancies in top positions pending appointments from the new governor.
“Governor Pritzker’s priority is to return to the bargaining table and negotiate a contract with state workers that is fair to both the state’s dedicated workforce and fair to taxpayers,” spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said in a statement on Thursday.
In his first full day on the job, Pritzker sought to wipe the slate with AFSCME clean, assuring them that “this is a very different kind of administration” from the one that froze step pay increases for new state workers, sought to implement a four-year pay freeze and pushed for higher employee contributions to their healthcare plans.
A bargaining committee comprised of 75 local AFSCME leaders is in the early stages of preparation before they return to the negotiating table and re-engage the unresolved issues with the state. After more than two years without a new contract, the committee could also present new proposals.
“The proposals that we discussed with the Rauner administration we thought were very reasonable, they were well thought out,” Joanna Webb-Gauvin said. “A lot of research went into them. Those proposals are going to be up for discussion and modifications.”
Webb-Gauvin, AFSCME Council 31’s legislative director also laid out what she described as a preliminary wish list for the union’s members.
“We want fair wages that are fair,” she said. “Our members have gone four years without a penny of a pay raise. We want health care that we can afford. We want basic rules of the road for privatization so that public services can’t be outsourced for private profit.”
“Now that we are sitting across the table from a governor who understands and respects the collective bargaining and understands the stability and predictability that a contract settlement would provide — not just to the workers but to people that rely on our service — we are hopeful that we can go to the table and get a contract that is fair to everybody,” she said.
At Pritzker’s direction, state workers who were hired on under the step payment plan would be immediately restored to their current step plan, which is an automatic annual pay increase intended to incentivize new employees to stay on the job. State agencies are still working to calculate the proper step increases before employees will see the larger amounts on their checks.
The union says the step payments don’t amount to extra taxpayer expense because the salaries of younger recruits are often lower than the salaries of retired workers they replaced. Still, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider slammed Pritzker’s move, characterizing it as “reckless spending promises without specifying the costs, creating more budget uncertainty.”
In an interview that will air Sunday on Capitol Connection, Webb-Gauvin pressured the Pritzker administration that “there should be no delay” in releasing backpay owed to state workers for the frozen step payments that were held up during the Rauner era.
The Pritzker administration said it “will address those issues in a fair and responsible manner – rather than the previous administration’s approach of refusing to comply with the court order.”
A state appeals court previously ruled the backpay was withheld illegally, and must be paid to the state workers at some point, including a seven percent interest payment.
While it was reluctant to track or release specific payroll data from state agencies, the Rauner administration’s budget office previously estimated that total backpay amount could reach as high as $500 million. The unpaid bill is accruing interest penalties as long as it remains unpaid.
Pritzker’s office said in an email that the backpay issue is being addressed with multiple unions who represent employees at multiple agencies. They expect to have more details in a matter of weeks.
Neither the backpay nor the step increases were accounted for in the current state budget, which is already more than a billion dollars out of balance. The addition of both sums, which were previously counted as ‘savings,’ threatens to create a hole of up to $700 million for the new legislature to grapple with when it returns to work next week.
Pritzker is scheduled to deliver his budget address before the General Assembly on February 20th.