Illinois court rules state owes AFSCME workers

Paul Kersey

Labor law expert, occasional smart-aleck, defender of the free society.

Paul Kersey
/ Labor
October 2, 2014

Illinois court rules state owes AFSCME workers

On Sept. 31, a panel of judges from an Illinois appellate court found that state employees were owed back pay under the contract between the state and Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. This has set off celebrations at AFSCME, whose position all along was that the...

On Sept. 31, a panel of judges from an Illinois appellate court found that state employees were owed back pay under the contract between the state and Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME. This has set off celebrations at AFSCME, whose position all along was that the state was bound to the contract it signed.

The First District Appellate Court ruled that the General Assembly could not reduce pay unilaterally by passing appropriations that contained inadequate provisions for employee wages. This was a ruse that the state probably should not have gotten away with – regardless of how badly state taxpayers could use the relief – under the law as it is currently written.

Taxpayers and the disadvantaged can be put in a bind when politicians sign bad contracts. Two years ago, Chicago Public Schools signed a contract with the Chicago Teachers Union that the district could not afford, and the result since then has been teacher layoffs and shuttered schools.

There’s nothing magical about a union contract that makes the money needed to pay for them appear out of thin air. If the money isn’t there, people are bound to be hurt. Hopefully, this court decision is a lesson learned: if the state is going to negotiate collectively with government unions, it needs to be a lot more careful about what it agrees to.

There are many ways by which that prudence could be achieved. The quickest would be for the chief executive to be willing to take a firm line on collective bargaining, and quit trying to win the favor of government-union bosses by making promises that the rest of the state can’t afford. If politicians don’t feel up to the task themselves, they might consider making the process more transparent and let taxpayers keep an eye on things.

Or they could overhaul the process, set tight limits on bargaining and rein in government-union power to make sure that union contracts are affordable. That’s what was done in Wisconsin, and it’s worked astonishingly well.

What Illinoisans can’t afford to do is allow politicians to sign contracts that the rest of us can’t pay for, and then try to chisel their way out of the deal. That’s not fair to government employees or taxpayers.

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