AFSCME, Rauner and a possible strike

From the Editorial Board of the Chicago Tribune

The nearly 40,000 state workers who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have some soul-searching to do. Their union got smacked down in a recent labor ruling. What happens next is up to them.

On Tuesday, the Illinois Labor Relations Board sided with Gov. Bruce Rauner on a critical bargaining issue, allowing him to begin implementing the terms of his contract proposal for AFSCME workers. They have been working without a contract since July 2015. Rauner’s terms for a four-year deal include a salary bonus system based on work attendance, along with a broader wage freeze and stricter overtime rules. Union members are frustrated. AFSCME is likely to fight the changes in court and a strike is a possibility.

Whatever the outcome, it’s important to remember how the two sides arrived at this crossroad.

For more than a year, representatives of Rauner’s team have been meeting with AFSCME’s leaders, trying to find common ground on a new contract. If you’re imagining a table of stuffy lawyers in a brightly lit conference room, you’re not quite nailing it.

The two sides usually met in a rented hotel ballroom with a dais up front and hundreds of chairs in rows to accommodate union reps. Negotiating sessions — almost 70 total in Chicago and downstate, with hundreds of proposals traded back and forth — were punctuated by AFSCME-induced pro-labor chants to rile up the membership. There were occasional outbursts of profanity. The schedule included late starts, lengthy caucus breaks for AFSCME members to regroup and long lunches. Oh, and little to no progress.

Rauner sought a ruling from the labor board that the two sides had reached an impasse. AFSCME didn’t want an impasse declaration. It wanted to continue stalling. The terms of the old contract were in place, by agreement with Rauner, so the union liked the status quo just fine.

That process wasn’t productive. It’s a waste of taxpayer time and resources. So the labor board agreed that the parties were at an impasse.

The ruling allows Rauner to implement what was his final offer. If the workers decide to strike, they could lose their jobs.

It didn’t have to be this way. Had AFSCME leaders come to the table in good faith, they might not be forced to accept Rauner’s terms. Perhaps there would have been legitimate give and take. But we won’t know because AFSCME, for more than a year, preferred theatrics.

Rauner and his rhetoric certainly played a role in agitating the union. The labor board acknowledged both sides shared some blame for the gridlock.

But the board ruled unanimously for Rauner, not AFSCME. Three of the five board members were holdover appointees from Democratic governors. This was not a political decision.

A gentle reminder to state workers: State finances are bleak. New calculations show the state’s unfunded pension liability is at $130 billion, up from about $40 billion just 10 years ago. Illinois owes its vendors roughly $10 billion in backlogged bills. It has the worst credit rating of any state. The blame for all that cannot be pinned solely on a governor who took office 22 months ago. AFSCME and the Democratic politicians it has financed and supported over the years bear much responsibility for the state’s finances.

AFSCME leaders repeatedly have said their members don’t want to strike. We hope they don’t. State workers are taxpayers, too. They have to realize the union’s grip on day-to-day government operations is too tight. They have seen firsthand how the grievance process can be costly and abused. They must realize employment rules based on seniority, not individual achievement, are inefficient and outdated.

They must see that the state needs a new direction — for Illinois’ government, but also for its economy, already taxed by high demands from the public sector.

So we ask: If you’re an AFSCME member, do you believe your union leaders came to the table to bargain with Rauner fairly or to obstruct him no matter what? Did they choose rational behavior over melodrama? Progress over stalling? Prudence over theatrics?

Or were they willing to risk your job via a strike to make a power play?

That’s the soul-searching for 40,000 workers whose jobs could now be on the line.