Languishing contract negotiations show need for labor law reforms in Illinois

Mailee Smith

Senior Director of Labor Policy and Staff Attorney

Mailee Smith
September 22, 2017

Languishing contract negotiations show need for labor law reforms in Illinois

Government-worker unions can negotiate for months or even years without reaching a new contract, and can use negotiations to push for even cushier perks from pricier health insurance to paid time off for birthdays.

Sangamon County workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees have been negotiating for a new contract for nearly two years. On Sept. 19, workers took to the picket line.

Twyla Moore, president of AFSCME #1936, told Fox Illinois she’s frustrated.

“Two years is a long time to go without a contract or an agreement, and like I said we are ready to move forward come to an agreement and be able to wrap things up,” she said.

The problem is, it’s not that unusual for government workers to go months – or even years – without a contract in Illinois. And Illinois’ labor laws, which allow an extensive list of details to be negotiated, are largely to blame.

Look at AFSCME Council 31, which represents state employees. That union has been without a contract with the state for over two years. Negotiations between the state and the union have stalled, and the parties are litigating the matter in the Illinois Appellate Court.

Another example: the Chicago Teachers Union. That union’s previous contract expired in 2015, but CTU didn’t reach a tentative agreement for a new contract with Chicago Public schools until October 2016. And according to information obtained by the Illinois Policy Institute via a Freedom of Information Act request to CPS, the tentative agreement still hadn’t been finalized as of July 2017.

A big part of the problem is that government-worker unions are practically unlimited in what they can demand in negotiations. And that means negotiations over every minute detail can drag on for months or even years.

The Illinois Public Labor Relations Act governs employment relations between units of government and government-worker unions. Similarly, the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Act governs employment relations between school districts and teacher unions.

Both laws allow contract negotiations over wages, hours, and “other conditions of employment.”

That’s incredibly broad. And it’s a detriment to both taxpayers and government workers who want certainty and efficiency in the contract process.

For taxpayers, it drives up costs. AFSCME Council 31 provides a good example. The contract the state wants will make union costs more affordable for taxpayers, particularly with regard to healthcare costs. But for each month the negotiations drag on – and that contract isn’t in place – Illinois is paying an additional $35 million to $40 million on health coverage alone.

It also inhibits government flexibility, which again affects taxpayers. East Aurora District 131 recently implemented a bus transportation plan that would aide thousands of students in getting to school. But to be most cost effective, the school district wanted to change school start times. Unfortunately, details as minute as school start times are negotiated into teacher contracts and can’t be altered by the school board without negotiating new terms with the teachers union. That means for now, East Aurora can’t adjust those times. And taxpayers are on the hook for thousands of dollars in extra bus costs required to work around the current schedule.

There is also an impact on the workers themselves. The fact that just about every subject under the sun can be negotiated brings an element of unpredictability to the labor process. Once negotiations open, workers can’t know how long it will be before a contract is ratified. And as negotiations drag on, talk of going on strike begins.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Other states limit what contract subjects can be negotiated. For example, Wisconsin and Iowa limit bargaining with government unions to negotiations over base wages only. Other subjects – like overtime or vacation days – are off the table.

But in Illinois, almost everything is up for negotiation. Wages, overtime, holiday pay, vacation time, sick time, leaves of absence, healthcare, time off for union work – to name just a few – are all on the table every time a government worker union contract is up for negotiation.

In fact, a municipal employee contract with the City of Kankakee even includes paid time off for employees’ birthdays.

When negotiations come to a halt – as they have with AFSCME Council 31, which represents Illinois state workers – the negotiators and their demands are not the only problem.

Illinois law allows government units and government-worker unions to bargain over too much – and that slows down the process, drives up costs, and undermines the “labor peace” Illinois’ collective bargaining laws were meant to support in the first place.

Want more? Get stories like this delivered straight to your inbox.

Thank you, we'll keep you informed!