Illinois’ union contracts expire July 1 … then what?

Illinois’ union contracts expire July 1 … then what?

The deadline to reach an agreement looms large, but if talks break down, work stoppages aren’t a given.

When the clock strikes midnight on June 30, union contracts will expire for 36,000 workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, along with 5,000 other Illinois state workers, including police officers and nurses.

Despite the dire predictions of doom and gloom, the sun will still come out on July 1, and most average Illinoisans will go to work. Police officers, firefighters, prison guards and some paramedics will still be on the job serving and protecting citizens.

A June 17 memo from the Illinois Department of Central Management Services, or CMS, advised government agencies that, should the contracts expire, “the State will operate as if the terms and conditions of employment set forth in the current collective bargaining agreements … still apply.” It further advised that employees will retain their current wages but not be given any raises. The memo also noted that some grievance procedures could be limited and CMS will determine if those grievances can go through.

In short, CMS is saying state workers under the expired contracts can still work even without a current contract in effect.

If the governor and union leaders do not come to an agreement before the contract deadline, the most extreme outcome would be a work stoppage, where some state employees are not working. Work stoppages are used to pressure the other side to agree to more favorable contract terms or resolve specific issues. This tactic is usually employed as a last resort.

There are generally two types of work stoppages: lockouts and strikes. The current state contract forbids both strikes and lockouts while the contract is in effect.

Lockouts and strikes

A lockout is when an employer refuses to let their employees work. In this case, Gov. Bruce Rauner or the state could refuse to let AFSCME or the other union members work.

A strike is when employees refuse to come to work. This results in a temporary work stoppage. In this case, AFSCME or the smaller unions could order their members not to report for duty on July 1.

In the 40 years AFSCME has been negotiating with the state, there has never been a work stoppage. In recent years, AFSCME largely got what it wanted from Illinois’ political leaders, negating the need to strike. This included as a 13 percent wage hike from 2004-2008 under former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Is either option likely?

Even though the governor and the unions are still not close to an agreement, there may not be a strike or lockout.

The contract expirations mean workers could go on strike or the state could lock them out. That said, the employees could also still work without a contract. The only difference is that without a contract that includes a provision barring strikes, lockouts or both, either workers or the state are free to institute a work stoppage to make terms more favorable in the next agreement.

If a work stoppage occurs, it is more likely to be a strike instituted by AFSCME rather than a lockout by the state.

“The administration is not going to lock out employees, and our team will continue to negotiate in good faith,” Rauner spokeswoman Catherine Kelly told The Associated Press. She went on, saying the governor’s “negotiating team is committed to bargaining in good faith with the government unions to reach a deal that is fair to employees and taxpayers.”

Limitations on work stoppages

Work stoppages for government workers are limited by Illinois law, even without the contract language.

Cops, firefighters and prison workers covered by the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act, or IPLRA, cannot go on strike and the state cannot lock them out of doing their job. The ILPRA covers most state workers outside of education.

As per the act, if a strike poses “a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the public [which] is about to occur or is in progress,” the state can ask a court to either prevent the strike or set conditions to “avoid or remove any such clear and present danger,” but then would go through a process called arbitration.

Are there any other options?

Alternatives to work stoppages include arbitration, a contract extension or simply working without a contract as the new one is negotiated.

It is possible that the contract dispute could go to arbitration, where an arbitrator could decide the terms of the contract and put taxpayers on the hook to pay for it.

AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch noted her union’s support for this option in a prepared statement on May 29, saying, “Given this unprecedented threat to the public services we provide, our union bargaining committee voted unanimously to support a temporary provision that allows for arbitration to help avert a strike or lockout.”

The statement was in support of legislation that would force arbitration for many government contract negotiations while Rauner is in office. The Illinois General Assembly passed this troubling piece of legislation, but the governor will likely veto the bill. Should he do so, both sides would need to agree to arbitration instead of the union forcing the state to do so, or vice versa.

Unions may favor arbitration because they think an arbitrator, who is unaccountable to voters, would give them a better deal than negotiating directly with the governor.

Another option is a temporary contract extension where the terms of the contract are extended for a set period of time. It could be weeks, months or years.

Finally, as the CMS memo outlines, it is possible that even without a contract, state employees show up to work as usual.

How does the lack of a budget affect the situation?

And what if there is no budget as of June 30, which also happens to be the end of the fiscal year? Regardless of the outcome of the union contract negotiations, even without a budget, state employees would still be expected to show up at work – although they may not get paid as of July 15, workers would likely get back pay after the new budget is approved.

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