December 15, 2016
By Austin Berg

AFSCME's demands would cost Illinois taxpayers an additional $3 billion over the course of the contract.

Five men and women depend on Jim Andersen. Each of the five has a severe mental illness, which is why they live at the Choate Mental Health and Developmental Center in Anna.

Throughout the day, Andersen ensures they are fed. He helps them go to the bathroom. He makes sure they stay safe and as comfortable as possible. This is typically thankless work.

But Andersen’s union does not reflect his level of care and selflessness.

In fact, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, is clinging to a list of outrageous demands regardless of cost to taxpayers – even at the expense of its own membership.

The union, House Speaker Mike Madigan and Senate President John Cullerton are now crying foul over negotiations with Gov. Bruce Rauner’s administration. “Don’t Dictate, Negotiate” is the common chorus.

That’s an absurd framing of the historical power dynamics in Springfield, where AFSCME typically demands and receives whatever it wants with little friction.

The length and cost of negotiations thus far is already insulting to Illinoisans. And AFSCME has acted like a spoiled child at the bargaining table.

The union and the state met in 24 bargaining sessions for a total of 67 days over the course of the current contract negotiations. Throughout, AFSCME stuck to demands that would cost Illinois taxpayers an additional $3 billion over the course of the contract, despite the following:

  • Illinois state workers are the highest paid in the nation when adjusted for cost of living.
  • They pay bronze-level prices for platinum-level health insurance.
  • Many retirees receive free health insurance for life.
  • Their contract already includes a 37.5-hour workweek for many employees and lax disciplinary procedures.

Surely there’s some wiggle room for negotiation. But AFSCME doesn’t want to budge.

“I have nothing else to say and am not interested in hearing what you have to say at this point – carry that message back to your principals,” AFSCME’s chief negotiator said at the close of one bargaining session.

Does that sound like someone willing to compromise?

Rauner requested the contract talks be declared at impasse, so negotiations could finally be brought to a close. Administrative law judge Sarah Kerley ruled impasse existed on several issues, writing, “ … the [u]nion’s conduct calls into question its commitment to reaching an agreement through bargaining.”

After that ruling, Rauner moved to implement some parts of the state’s last, best offer, such as $1,000 performance bonuses and bereavement leave. But the union began filing lawsuits across the state to block those actions. St. Clair Circuit Judge Robert LeChien promptly issued a temporary restraining order preventing the governor from imposing those reforms.

Andersen, for one, is fed up with the stalling tactics. And he thinks fighting for richer benefits is disrespectful to Illinoisans who don’t work for the state.

“I think AFSCME has anything but the health of its members’ state at heart,” he said. “I’m not one to stick by all these added benefits people have gotten from the union, because it’s unfair to all the other citizens who pay taxes through the nose so I can sit pretty. I don’t want to be selfish, but here’s a union that wants to hold the state over a barrel.”

If only he had a seat at the bargaining table.

Andersen formerly earned a living making signs, and understands the difficulties Illinoisans are facing in the private sector. For instance, Illinois manufacturing workers are experiencing the worst jobs recovery in the entire Midwest, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate also remains the highest in the region.

Still, Andersen is witnessing a growing uneasiness among his AFSCME-member co-workers, who naturally are eager to receive $1,000 checks before Christmas, but instead hear talk of the union’s fight against those bonuses, and of a potential strike.

Andersen said a strike could be harmful to the men and women he cares for at Choate. In his line of work, success requires strong relationships and consistency of care.

“The impression I get is that most people don’t want to strike,” he said.

“But we have union reps ramping up the pressure. I don’t think that’s fair to us. We’re all in this together, and if we don’t act like we’re all in this together we’ll never get out of it.”

Carry that message back to your principals.

TAGS: AFSCME: American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees