Unions bemoan pace of talks with UI

Unions bemoan pace of talks with UI

URBANA — Two unions representing more than 1,500 University of Illinois employees who have worked without a contract since August rallied Monday to protest the pace of negotiations with the university.

American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Locals 3700 and 698 said their contract talks have dragged on since July, and they're still waiting for the university to respond to their wage proposals.

The UI says it needs time to review an economic package that wasn't submitted until early April.

Local 3700 President Dorinda K. Miller said the union workers have yet to receive cost-of-living raises granted to other workers last summer because they haven't settled on a new agreement with the UI. The university awarded 3 percent average raises to other employees, though individual amounts varied. Tara McCauley, staff representative from the statewide AFSCME Council 31, said neither local has received a real wage increase for several years.

"Our members are the frontline workers at the university. They just want to be treated with respect and be treated as fairly as other university employees," McCauley said.

Local 3700 includes about 1,250 clerical workers, and Local 698 represents 350 librarians, nurses and other employees. Their wages range from $11 an hour to about $20 an hour, McCauley said.

AFSCME's previous agreement with the university expired Aug. 20, Miller said.

The union filed a request for negotiations last May, asking the university to bargain jointly with both AFSCME locals, but contract talks didn't begin until July, AFSCME officials said.

The two sides have been meeting almost every week at Willard Airport, working out other contract provisions, McCauley and Miller said. The union presented its wage package April 4, though officials wouldn't disclose any details publicly.

Since then, university negotiators canceled two meetings and failed to show up for last week's session, Miller said. A picture on AFSCME Local 3700's Facebook shows union leaders facing an empty table.

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler called it a misunderstanding, saying the university asked AFSCME negotiators for a postponement but neglected to inform local union leaders.

"It was an oversight," she said, and the campus offered an apology.

Kaler noted that the two sides have met 22 times since July, and reached agreement on "many noneconomic issues." The economic proposals submitted April 4 have to be "vetted and analyzed to determine their feasibility," Kaler said.

The next negotiating session is scheduled for Wednesday.

Members of the two locals have gone without wage increases for four years, other than 2 percent "step" increases provided on employees' hiring anniversary dates or small bonuses, officials said. Most Local 698 members don't receive "step" increases, and neither do employees who have reached the top of the wage scale, McCauley said.

Jim McGuire, president of Local 698, said the university talks constantly about the state's budget crisis and how that's affected UI funding. But the overall UI budget, now at $5.2 billion, continues to grow by hundreds of millions of dollars a year as tuition and other income rises, he said.

An audit commissioned by the Campus Faculty Association, which is trying to organize a faculty union, shows tuition and fees more than doubling over the last decade even as the number of employees declined or remained stable — with the exception of a sizable increase in administrative staff.

"The argument that they can't give raises just isn't true," said McGuire, a storekeeper for Facilities and Services.

Kaler said some UI income is restricted for specific uses, and officials say costs have continued to rise as well.

Meanwhile, talks between the UI and the visiting academic professionals union, which also began last July, have made little progress in recent days.

UI officials say they've made their "last, best and final offer" to the union, which represents about 300 employees on campus who work on year-to-year appointments. Union leaders rejected the offer, but chief negotiator Alan Bilansky has said the two sides are "hours away" from an agreement.

Bilansky said Monday the UI has made it clear it will no longer negotiate unless the union wants to talk about the university's last offer.

"We are still considering our next steps," Bilansky said in an email to The News-Gazette.