GLENN Sago has been fighting for his union rights for 10 years, and he’s been through plenty. ‘It’s a lot of work,’ he said. ‘It’s all worth it to know that your rights will be respected. I became a steward to stand up and make sure the contract was followed.’
But he’s never seen anything like the current situation in Illinois, where he works for the state in law enforcement support services. Since Gov. Bruce Rauner was elected in 2014, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) members there have been under fire like never before. ‘I’ve done negotiations with the previous governor, but this is a different battle,’ says Sago, an executive board member at Local 448 (Council 31) in Rockford who also serves on the state bargaining committee.
The list of attacks is unprecedented. The governor has held the budget hostage for more than a year, blocked the state from fulfilling its promise to issue back pay to thousands of state workers, and wants to double health care costs and freeze wages for four years to implement his extreme agenda.
AFSCME Council 31’s bargaining team members have told the Rauner administration repeatedly that they want to continue bargaining, but he walked away from the table in early January, seeking instead to impose his extreme demands. It seems reasonableness, compromise and collaboration are not in the governor’s playbook. He’s a billionaire bully, blaming the state’s budget situation on working families and contending state workers make too much when, in fact, politicians in Springfield mismanaged the state’s funds.
In July, the state Labour Relations Board rejected Rauner’s attempt to fast-forward a hearing process that will decide whether the parties are ordered to resume bargaining. Roberta Lynch, Council 31’s executive director and an AFSCME International vice president, applauded the decision.
‘We have been and remain ready to return to the bargaining table, to do the hard work of compromise,’ Lynch said. ‘We want to reach an agreement that is fair to all. The fact that the Rauner administration pushed for this unprecedented short-circuiting of board procedures demonstrates just how fiercely determined the governor is to try to impose his own harsh terms on state employees.’
In the face of Rauner’s anti-worker agenda, Sago and his colleagues are working harder than ever to connect with their co-workers, face-to-face. These conversations are a powerful tool against Rauner’s misinformation campaign. ‘Every time Rauner makes statements about us, we are out talking to members and telling them the truth,’ said Sago.
AFSCME members nationwide are standing in solidarity with their sisters and brothers in Illinois. ‘Council 31, your fight is our fight,’ Pres. Lee Saunders declared during his keynote address at AFSCME’s 42nd International Convention in July. Thousands of Convention delegates agreed. They voted to ‘stand in solidarity with AFSCME Council 31 members in state government who are directly confronting one of the most fiercely anti-union governors in the country today.’
Members of Council 31 are ready to meet whatever challenges come next. ‘We’ve stayed the course this long,’ said Sago. ‘We’ve fought over a year and a half at the bargaining table and in the Legislature. It may get to the point that we have no choice but to go on strike, but the members have to vote and make that choice.’
• Healthcare workers picketed last Tuesday at St. Mary’s Hospital for Children in Bayside in response to slow contract negotiations with management, an organiser from 1199SEIU said. The 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East, one of the largest unions in the state, is demanding a better health insurance plan, an improved retirement plan, as well as a 3 per cent raise which would put these workers in line with the compensation their equals receive at neighbouring facilities.
The union is currently taking votes from their members who will decide if workers will go on strike pending a 10-day notice to management which is required by the National Labour Relations Board. The hospital is located at, at 29-01 216th St. Benson Mathew, an 1199SEIU organiser, said St. Mary’s received 30 per cent more in medicaid reimbursements than other hospitals in Queens. But the workers represented by the union are 10 per cent to 15 per cent behind in salaries on average than others in their fields, he said.
So far, the hospital has only offered workers a 2 percent raise with the current 403B retirement plan and Etna insurance, according to Mathew. ‘Over the course of more than a year of talks with 1199, St. Mary’s has worked tirelessly to balance the needs of our dedicated staff with our responsibility to our children and the financial integrity of our institution, by presenting a sound plan that includes salary increases as well as a comprehensive health insurance plan for our employees,’ the hospital said in a statement. We remain committed to reaching a fair contract with our union staff, and we look forward to continuing to negotiate with 1199 until we reach a deal.’
Lisa Leonard, a rehab assistant, said she felt as though management’s offer was ‘throwing pennies in the face’ of workers. ‘A lot of workers have been here for years and years. They have no pension,’ Leonard said. ‘Right now we have a medical plan but we can’t afford to go to the doctor because the out-of-pocket costs are just too much. It’s sad, I’ve gotten a 30-cent raise in 13 years.’
Leonard, a single mother, said she was frustrated to learn staff at Flushing Hospital receive $7 to $8 an hour more for the same work. She said many employees have the ability to find jobs elsewhere, but would prefer to stay with St. Mary’s and the severely disabled children who they serve. ‘You would think that a place that gives so much to the kids would want to do the same for their staff,’ she said.
Mathew said it has been about five years since the last contract renegotiation and the results were very minimal. ‘We don’t want to strike, but we will if we have to,’ Mathew said. ‘Because at the end of the day, these children have to be taken care of. Not only the children in the hospital as patients, but these workers have families and kids that they need to take care of too. We’re not asking for anything that is not out there in the industry. Our proposals are not unreasonable.’
• General Motors workers represented by Canadian union Unifor were set to vote today on a tentative four-year contract that includes $554 million in investments and a major change to pension plans for new hires. The first ratification meeting is set to begin at 9am today at Unifor Local 222 in Oshawa, Ontario, where the assembly plant there will receive about $400 million in investments. Two other ratification meetings – at St. Catharines, Ontario, and Woodstock, Ontario – will take place in the early afternoon.
The tentative pact with GM includes new product for the Oshawa plant’s flex line, which currently has no products slated for it beyond 2019. According to a report from Reuters, Oshawa workers will do final assembly on Chevrolet Silverados from Fort Wayne, Ind., in addition to continuing to build the Chevrolet Impala and Cadillac XTS.
Unifor President Jerry Dias has not confirmed the report, but he has said the tentative contract makes Oshawa the only North American assembly plant capable of producing cars and light trucks. Oshawa’s consolidated line would close in 2017 under the agreement. The deal also secures investments in the St. Catharines engine and transmission plant, which produces parts for 12 GM models. Under the agreement, some engine production would be shifted to St. Catharines from Mexico.
The most notable concession from Unifor in the tentative agreement appears to be a defined-contribution pension plan for new hires. Under the plan, legacy workers would remain on their defined-benefit or hybrid plans, but new workers would be put on defined-contribution plans, which shift much of the risk from the employer to the employee.
The deal also secures the first wage gains for workers in about a decade, in addition to a signing bonus and the full-time hiring of about 700 temporary workers. Should the deal be ratified, Unifor will begin negotiations with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, where investments in the Brampton, Ontario, assembly plant will take centre stage.
Negotiations with FCA will be patterned off the deal with GM. In the event of a rejection from the roughly 3,900 workers eligible to vote, Unifor will ‘immediately’ strike at GM, according to a document posted by Local 199 in St. Catharines.