After months of failed negotiations, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 698 and the University of Illinois legal team are meeting with a federal mediator in order to draft a new contract.
The two sides will meet with a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service on Thursday. Their first meeting was on July 25. The UI's contract with AFSCME Local 698 expired last August.
Local 698 Vice President Margaret Lewis said she and her negotiating team are "guardedly optimistic" about the next meeting. Going into mediation, "we were pretty pessimistic," she said.
But there was progress at that first meeting, she said.
"As long as we make progress we'll keep scheduling the meetings," Lewis said.
At the first meeting, both sides met the mediator to learn about the mediation process. The mediator then met with people from both sides to discuss how things had been going, what are the sticking points, and other issues.
"We still have a long ways to go before we feel we have something to take to our members," Lewis said.
A few of the sticking points have to do with raises. Lewis said the union rejects the UI's proposed 2 percent raise for the first year of the contract because it would not be retroactive to last August, when the contract expired.
The union also rejects a proposal for the final two years of the contract. Those raises would be pegged to whatever amount the UI grants its academic professionals and other employees minus 1.5 percent, Lewis said. For example, if the general UI raise was 3 percent, AFSCME Local 698 members would receive 1.5 percent.
Despite being without a contract for about a year, morale within the union is actually doing "pretty good," Lewis said. "We were a Local that's been around a long time but we've not had a significant struggle. ... I think we've become a much stronger Local. There's more face-to-face contact with members. I've had a chance to talk to people I didn't know before," Lewis said.
Local 698's approximately 400 members include telephone operators, crash and rescue specialists, nurses and a variety of other UI employees.
As for how long it could take for the two sides to arrive at an agreement, UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said it could be resolved on Aug. 10 or in another 10 weeks.
"It depends on what both sides are able to do," she said.
She said the UI is optimistic both sides will be able to think outside-the-box and come up with a jointly acceptable solution.
"We're always working to do what we can with what we have. And we'll continue to do that," Kaler said.
The Urbana-Champaign campus has 12 unions representing about 3,700 employees.
The UI is currently negotiating with four unions: AFSCME Local 698, Teamsters Local 26, the Graduate Employees Union and the visiting academic professionals. It is in mediation with AFSCME and Teamsters.
The Teamsters Local 26, which represents employees such as drivers and warehouse workers, has been without a contract also since August 2005. The UI and members of the Teamsters negotiating team will meet with a mediator on Aug. 15.
Costs for the mediation is paid for by the federal government. In other words, by taxpayers.