Union pickets blast final offer of negotiators

Union pickets blast final offer of negotiators

URBANA – Nurses, library workers and other employees at the University of Illinois staged an informational picket Thursday protesting what they call a "union-busting" final offer from UI negotiators.

About 400 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 698 have been working without a contract since last August, when their last agreement expired. The two sides have had nine negotiating sessions since then.

Local 698 Vice President Margaret Lewis said the UI has proposed a three-year contract granting 2 percent raises the first year, but they would not be retroactive to last August. And the final two years of the contract would be pegged to whatever raise the UI gives academic professionals and other employees based on its state funding – minus 1.5 percent, Lewis said.

"The whole concept of us just taking whatever they want to give us is contrary, in my opinion, to all the tenets of collective bargaining," she said. On top of that, she said, the UI decided Local 698 employees should get less than everyone else.

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said the retroactive pay is a "bargainable item," and noted the wage proposals are just a part of the total compensation package.

Local 698 workers and others represented by AFSCME receive "step" increases as they move up the seniority ladder, but other UI employees do not, Kaler said. About a fifth of Local 698 members get step raises of anywhere from 2.7 percent to 23.1 percent, which represents a substantial cost to the university, she said.

With the steps and general wage increases combined, the contract offer is equitable with the pay of other UI employees, she said. In the past, AFSCME workers came out ahead because they got similar across-the-board increases, plus the steps, she said.

But Lewis said more senior employees don't get those steps.

"People like myself, who've been around for a while, will never have another step raise in their career," said Lewis, a senior library specialist in the Math Library.

"The thinking on this is just totally wrong-headed. It's not something that we can accept. It's something that's basically union-busting," Lewis said. "If we accepted something like this, we would run the risk of never having a good contract the rest of our employment history."

About 100 members of Local 698 marched outside the Illini Union on Thursday. The local, first organized in 1944, represents a diverse group of employees who work at the McKinley Health Center, UI Library, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and agricultural operations, among others. They include nurses and nurse-practitioners, theater stitchers, animal caretakers and telephone operators.

The two sides have agreed to federal mediation, and Lewis hopes to avoid any talk of a strike.

"We don't want to go there," Lewis said. "We're hoping that (mediation) will move the administration to give us a better offer."

She said all UI employees have a stake in the issue, because unions often drive the salaries for academic professionals and other nonunion workers.

"If one of the unions on campus accepts something like this, what's the incentive for them to ever give a good raise to employees?" she asked.

When the university grants top administrators and faculty generous raises but can't give "front-line employees a reasonable deal, I think everybody should be concerned about that."

Kaler said compensation for those top positions is commensurate with the responsibilities involved. Running the university, she said, is "not an easy job."

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