Illinois' largest union and Gov. Pat Quinn's administration reached a tentative contract agreement Thursday, averting the threat of the first strike by state workers in decades of collective bargaining.
The deal means that members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 will get promised 2011 pay increases on which the Democratic governor reneged last year, according to a member of AFSCME's bargaining committee. The member spoke on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to speak publicly about the deal.
Neither the governor's office nor union officials would publicly disclose details of the three-year agreement. But the bargaining committee member said more than 35,000 union members would get 2 percent salary increases in each of the last two years of the three-year pact after taking a wage freeze in the first year.
In return, workers will pay more of their health insurance costs, said the committee member.
"AFSCME is very pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that protects our members' standard of living, and is fair to them and all Illinois citizens, even in these very challenging economic times," Council 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer said in a statement.
Spokesman Anders Lindall said AFSCME members, who have been at the table for 15 months, will begin reviewing and discussing the tentative agreement next week. The union has been working without a contract since November, when Quinn took the symbolic but demoralizing step of canceling the pact instead of continuing to extend the deal that expired last June 30.
Lindall said an agreement was reached after midnight Thursday.
Though Quinn's office would not discuss details, Lindall said in the provisional contract, Quinn agrees to pay a 5.25-percent raise due workers in early 2012. The union agreed to forgo the raises to help the state in a budget crisis, but when they came due last summer, Quinn argued the Legislature had not appropriated the $75 million necessary to pay them.
A judge ruled in the union's favor in December and Quinn appealed. According to the AFSCME member, Quinn has agreed to drop his appeal and approach lawmakers with AFSCME support in seeking authority to spend money the Cook County judge ordered Quinn to put aside last summer.
Locally, prison employees and AFSCME members are encouraged by the tentative agreement.
"I am happy that a tentative agreement has been reached, I am thankful the Quinn administration did not continue this attack toward state workers. I am proud of all the hard work my union brothers and sisters have put in to end this fight and I appreciate the fact that we never had to go too far to get a fair shake," said AFSCME Local 3649 President Bryon Steadman.
"I feel the ratification vote will go well statewide. Since this started, our members were aware of the states financial condition and like always we will do our part to chip in but we will fight back when we are forced to work in unfair conditions." he added. "The give and take on this agreement seems fair given both sides of the situation, I can only hope my fellow members feel the same."
There hasn't been a state worker strike since unionization began in 1973. State law prohibits security workers' in AFSCME's case, prison guards, from walking out, but a strike could have hobbled critical functions such as child-abuse investigations and caring for elderly residents of military veterans' homes.
AFSCME issued a memo in February to members telling them how to prepare in case of a possible strike, and worker protests in recent months had called on Quinn for fair employment and collective bargaining practices.
It is not known if two recent attacks - one on a Lawrence County Correctional Center corrections officer and another at the Menard Correctional Center - had any influence on the recent negotiations. At Menard, two guards and a chaplain were injured in an attack that union officials said involved up to 15 inmates. At Lawrence, a correctional officer was reportedly attacked with a broom handle by an inmate. Union officials say the disturbances stem from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to close several prisons around the state to save money, a move they claim has put staffers at overcrowded prisons at greater risk.
Quinn had wanted workers to accept a multiyear wage freeze along with changes in health care coverage. Bayer said those changes would cost each employee an additional $10,000 over the length of the contract.
The union and Quinn's office had been negotiating for more than a year at a time when the relationship was already strained over issues such as money-saving facility closures.
Illinois has the worst-in-the-nation pension problem with $96 billion in unfunded liability. The union opposes reductions to their retirement benefits, which have been central themes on pension overhaul talks. The state can't keep up with bills, either, carrying a backlog of roughly $9 billion.