Following fifteen months of debate and negotiations, the largest state employee union has approved its next three-year contract.
Since July of last year, leading members of the American Federation of State and County Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 13 have been negotiating with Governor Quinn’s administration on a new three-year contract after the previous agreement expired on June 30, 2012. Last month, AFSCME approved a new three-year contract with 96 percent of voters in favor of the deal and four percent of workers against. The contract covers 37,000 state workers, including child protection workers, nurse aides, correctional officers, police dispatchers and environmental technicians, among others. A tentative agreement between AFSCME and the State of Illinois was reached on February 28 and submitted to the union for approval. After two weeks of discussion, the union approved the contract in late March.
In a statement, AFSCME Executive Director Henry Bayer says that the new contract “takes into account the state’s fiscal challenges, while also recognizing the vitally important work state employees do. AFSCME members are on the front lines every day. They care for the elderly and people with disabilities, protect public safety, maintain state parks, respond to emergencies and more. They often work without sufficient staff or resources, going the extra mile to provide services that residents rely on, and they deserve to be treated fairly.”
The new agreement runs from July 1, 2012 until June 30, 2015 and provides for wage increases for union workers for the second and third year of the contract. State employees will receive a two percent increase beginning July 1, 2013 followed by another 2 percent increase on July 1, 2014. A no-layoff pact is also included, guaranteeing state workers jobs for another three years. Quinn claims the pact will save Illinois approximately $50 million.
Republicans, however, remain skeptical, citing that $50 million will not be enough to make a significant dent in the state’s $13 billion deficit and $9 billion in unpaid bills. Education, social services, transportation and other programs will still face drastic cuts. State Representative David Reis (R-Olney) says removing the option of laying workers off takes away flexibility from budget planners and “doesn’t help the state of Illinois get out of its problem.”
The contract also provides for state workers to receive pay raises the state was obligated to give them under the previous AFSCME contract. Employees will face higher health insurance co-pays and higher deductibles. The contract also specifies workers will pay one percent more toward their health insurance premiums from their salaries. Current retirees will be required to pay health insurance premiums for the first time. Furthermore, the contract specifies that the state will offer a subsidy to retirees who opt out of state health insurance benefits and obtain health insurance from another source. AFSCME claims the insurance changes will save Illinois $900 million over the life of the contract.
Union workers eligible for step increases will receive them as scheduled. Workers with more than ten years seniority will receive a $25 per month increase in longevity pay. Additionally, the contract includes cost of living adjustments at a rate of 0 percent, 2 percent and 2 percent over three years.
Governor Quinn hailed the contract as a step in the right direction to restore fiscal stability to Illinois. “This is the best contract for all taxpayers in Illinois history,” Quinn said. “This contract recognizes the fact that the state is facing unprecedented financial challenges. I want to thank the members of AFSCME who approved the agreement and the women and men who negotiated at the table for more than a year to get this job done. Even in difficult times, the process can work. This is a win for all of our taxpayers and a win for state workers as we continue to move Illinois forward.”
The agreement comes on the heels of the longest—and perhaps the most intrepid—union negotiation in history. The Quinn administration had originally sought to cut workers’ pay. The pay cut would then have been followed by a pay freeze for the life of the contract. Executive Director Henry Bayer had argued that it would be unfair to ask union workers to pay more for health insurance while simultaneously cutting their pay, but the Governor had argued that pay increases would translate into a greater burden on taxpayers. Negotiations appeared to be at a stalemate when the Governor refused to renew the contract last November.
But even after contract approval, doubts persist. State Representative Jim Watson (R-Jacksonville) stated that Illinois leadership is “going to have to start thinking on a much bigger scale if we’re going to address that $13 billion deficit.”