Jim Dey: AFSCME/Rauner contract talks on hold

Jim Dey: AFSCME/Rauner contract talks on hold

Both labor and management were hoping that an administrative law judge would bring clarity to adjourned labor talks between Gov. Bruce Rauner and a union representing 38,000 state employees.

Instead, Administrative Law Judge Sarah Kerley wrote a 400-page decision that handed each side a victory and a defeat. Now her Solomonic decision to split the baby in half goes to the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which can do whatever it likes with Kerley's decision.

Whatever the board eventually does, labor negotiations fraught with financial and political implications remain on hold even as the Nov. 8 election that could affect the talks draws nearer.

State negotiators have reached contract agreements with 17 unions but have failed to come close to concluding one with the powerful American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. After months of fruitless talks, the state earlier this year asked the state's Labor Relations Board to declare an impasse, a move that would allow the state to unilaterally implement its final contract offer.

At the same time, AFSCME members would be free to go on strike.

But Kerley rejected the Rauner administration request, at least in part.

She ruled that the state is free to implement its final offer on issues like subcontracting, holiday scheduling and mandatory overtime. At the same time, she said there was no impasse on wages and benefits, and directed the parties to resume negotiations.

Kerley, who concluded that "the parties generally operated in good faith," showed a clear reluctance to find in the state's favor on the entire issue.

"If the state were able to implement its last, best and final offer, the implications and impact would be so enormous that, when applied to this case, it would be destructive of the collective bargaining process and not serve the statutory mission of the (labor) board," she said.

Kerley's decision is the latest shoe to drop in what has been a fractious process that twice has prompted legislative Democrats to pass legislation stripping Rauner of his legal authority to negotiate with AFSCME.

Acting at AFSCME's behest, legislators passed bills that would have allowed an arbitrator to decide the matter. Rauner vetoed both measures, and his vetoes were narrowly sustained in the Illinois House.

If Democrats pick up additional seats in the House this November, they could pass similar legislation in 2017 and override a veto.

Rauner administration officials, however, contend a pro-AFSCME bill would be trumped by a tolling agreement signed by management and AFSCME that extended the old contract as negotiations continued.

For now, however, Kerley's decision goes to the five-member labor board for review.

Jason Barclay, counsel to Rauner, said the board members are "allowed to do whatever they want with it."

That means they can accept it, reject it or choose parts of it to accept or reject.

The parties have 45 days to submit arguments to the board. Barclay speculated that the earliest the board could review the issue will be at its Nov. 15 meeting.

Each side accused the other of failing to negotiate in good faith. Prior to Rauner asking for declaration of an impasse, the parties had met 67 times and failed to make progress on an agreement.

Union executive director Roberta Lynch said she was "pleased" with the ruling because it "underlines what AFSMCE has been saying all along ... there is no impasse on key issues."

Rauner press secretary Catherine Kelly said the administration "appreciate(s) that (Judge Kerley) concluded that we have been bargaining in good faith for a fair deal on behalf of taxpayers" but otherwise declined comment.

"We are reviewing her opinion to evaluate the next steps as the rest of the agreed-to process continues," she said.

The state's sorry financial shape has complicated contract talks. Rauner persuaded other unions to accept four-year agreements with a pay freeze. But AFSCME has rejected that proposal out of hand.

Rauner has signed a written pledge not to lock out employees. At the same time, the union has suggested it might go on strike. Administration officials suggested in August that AFSCME planned a Sept. 1 walkout. But the union denied that report, and nothing happened at the start of the month.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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