Quinn, AFSCME at sword's point
It's hard to throw money around when there's no money.
Gov. Pat Quinn and the state's unionized workers have been at loggerheads for months, squabbling about pay raises, proposed layoffs, closures of state facilities and, most recently, the details of a new contract.
Union members have gone so far as to show up to boo and shout down the governor when he makes public appearances and, ridiculously, have described him as "anti-union."
Quinn is now and always has been vehemently pro-union. Unfortunately, his negotiating position is constrained by Illinois' poor fiscal circumstances. Illinois' finances are an unmitigated disaster, and Quinn is rightfully reluctant to spend money the state doesn't have on pay raises it can't afford.
Negotiators for the state and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are scheduled to return to the bargaining table today. But the gap between the two sides is so large that union leaders are threatening what they describe as "direct action at the work site and in the community" unless they get what they want.
It should be no surprise that, given Illinois' dire financial circumstances, the state is seeking givebacks from employees that the union says includes reductions in pay and increased contributions for health care benefits.
That would be a tough pill for any employee to swallow. But it's especially hard for members of a powerful public union who are used to conducting friendly negotiations with the politicians they helped elect to office.
Consequently, AFSCME officials and union members are enraged.
"Negotiations for a new state contract are at a virtual standstill as the Quinn administration continues to press for concessions that would take thousands of dollars out of union members' pockets. Gov. Quinn's position is an insult to every state employee, demonstrating in no uncertain terms how little he values the vital services that the government provides to citizens," states a AFSCME email to its members that was leaked to the news media.
The email stated that the Quinn administration is seeking to cut public employees' pay in the first year of the contract and then freeze wages and step increases for two years.
If true, that's tough stuff, although many thousands of private-sector employees have been through the same thing or worse.
State officials defend their stance on two grounds — the state's fiscal shortcomings and the generous salary and benefits currently paid to state employees.
State budget spokesman Abdon Pallasch said the public employees' pay and benefits are "unsustainable and at levels far exceeding the salaries and benefits of other unionized workers across the country."
Pallasch said that, even with the proposed concessions, state workers' pay and benefits "would still be better than the benefits employees receive in the private sector and in other states."
This face-off demonstrates once again the dramatic change in circumstances brought about by the lagging economy and years of overspending by Illinois governors and legislators.
Illinois has no money and no prospects for the kind of economic turnaround that would fill state coffers with new revenue. Union members don't want to accept that reality.
Of course, it's understandable why they feel that way.
The Chicago school system is $1 billion in debt, but Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently reached, after a nasty strike, a four-year agreement that will provide the average teacher an overall 17 percent pay raise.
Change, as the old cliche states, is hard, and change that hits people in the pocketbook is doubly hard.