The 40,000 Illinois state workers who belong to the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees found themselves in unchartered territory last week after Governor Pat Quinn announced the termination of their contract after almost a year of negotiations. No governor in the state's history—or other public official—has terminated a contract negotiated with public workers at the bargaining table.
“During 11 months of bargaining, the state has extended the contract three times and made significant efforts to compromise,” Assistant Budget Director Abdon Pallasch said in a statement after the contract's termination November 20. “But the government employees union, which has not offered a single proposal to deal with retirement health care, continues to seek millions of dollars in pay hikes the taxpayers can't afford to give them. It has refused to recognize the extraordinary financial crisis squeezing the state.”
The state House further angered the union on Wednesday (November 28) by passing a resolution that says the legislature won't pay for salary increases the first year of a new contract and warns against including no-layoff provisions. An endless series of bitter debates about public pensions and a legal battle over raises that were promised at the bargaining table but never delivered underlie the conflicts.
Union leaders say the legislative resolution usurps the collective bargaining process and unnecessarily intrudes into workers' rights. They warned that the governor's decision to terminate the contract will make an eventual agreement more difficult. Under Illinois state law, many of the contract's practical provisions – pay and the terms and conditions of employment – remain in effect despite the governor's decision not to extend it.
Still, the decision to terminate the contract is significant and unprecedented. "This is an out of the ordinary situation, so I'm not sure anyone can say what it means," says Martin Malin, director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at the Kent College of Law in Chicago. Contracts in states that allow public workers to strike are typically extended to avoid invalidating “no strike provisions” that are typically included in the contracts.
For now, Malin says, the move is largely symbolic; it's unclear if the administration will try to make any changes unilaterally. “If it's going to be more than symbolic, we're going to be swimming in very unchartered waters legally.”
The union is bracing for the possibility of a strike. “We don't know what this governor or his administration may do next, having taken an extreme step that's been widely condemned and is unprecedented in the state's history,” says Anders Lindall, the union's director of public affairs.
“We want to reach a fair agreement. But it appears that Governor Quinn is seeking confrontation,” Lindall says. “If he attempts to force state employees to strike, we will be ready. But that is not the outcome that serves the public or the outcome that anyone wants.”