Big state worker union courting disaster for Illinois taxpayers

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents 38,000 Illinois state workers whose median salary is double the Illinois median. They work 37.5 hours a week, then get overtime.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees represents 38,000 Illinois state workers whose median salary is double the Illinois median. They work 37.5 hours a week, then get overtime. AP

If your employer is going bankrupt, do you push for a 29 percent wage increase? If you see inventory running low and orders falling off, do you demand to work fewer hours than almost everyone else?

Yup, if you are one of about 38,000 Illinois state workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Twenty Illinois public employee unions made concessions and came to contract terms with our struggling state, but not AFSCME. It has been without a contract since July 2015.

That’s fine with them.

We know that because union members are not screaming about being without a contract, or picketing outside the state capitol or striking. AFSCME wants the status quo to continue.

For AFSCME, status quo means a median wage of $63,660 compared to the median Illinois wage of less than $32,000. They want to keep their 37.5-hour work week, costing Illinoisans $63 million. They want to keep double-time pay for 10 holidays and two-and-one-half-time pay for Christmas, Thanksgiving and Labor Day, which costs taxpayers an extra $48 million. They want to keep platinum-level health care benefits with 77 percent of the nearly $15,000 per worker paid by taxpayers who can’t get that same coverage, plus free health insurance at retirement worth up to $500,000 and pension benefits averaging $1.6 million.

That’s a lot to protect, and a recent appellate ruling out of Mount Vernon took away the one small bit of pain that going without a contract caused.

Gov. Bruce Rauner stopped “step” increases that boost newer employees’ salaries, reasoning that there was no contract to establish those increases so he could exert a little pressure on the union to deal. The Illinois Labor Relations Board, which has a Democrat majority, agreed with him.

But our local appeals court told the state there was precedent to start paying the increases and sent the matter back to the labor board. About 40 percent of AFSCME’s members could get raises, but first we’ll all likely be back in court. There’s an Illinois Supreme Court ruling stating that the increases don’t need to be paid if there’s been no money appropriated for them by state lawmakers.

Plus there is a case on whether Rauner and AFSCME are at an impasse, which would allow Rauner to impose contract terms. That case is before the state’s high court.

Not enough courtroom drama for you yet? The wild card in all this is a case now being mulled by the U.S. Supreme Court. One of AFSCME’s Illinois workers is unhappy he’s being forced to pay $500 in annual union dues that are then used to back Democratic political agendas with which he does not agree. AFSCME spent $18 million nationwide on campaigns and lobbying in the 2016 election cycle.

If the Supremes rule as expected, forced public employee union membership will cease nationwide. A whole lot of Illinois state workers may decide to keep their $500, crumbling the union’s finances and its choke hold on Illinois politics. As of 2015, 86 percent of Illinois lawmakers had received campaign cash from public employee unions.

So on one side there’s AFSCME, happy to continue as they are and saying the state can just tax more and give them a new contract worth an extra $3 billion.

On the other side is Rauner, saying Illinois just borrowed another $6 billion so it could pay down a chunk of the bill backlog that hit $16.6 billion and owes its pension systems another $130 billion. He’s asking AFSCME for the same concessions other state unions made after looking at the state’s wrecked finances: work 40 hours before overtime, let taxpayers pay 60 percent of your health insurance instead of 77 percent, freeze wages for four years, get the same holiday pay as Joe Average rather than double time, get bonuses for showing up to work rather than having up to 10 unexcused absences before questions are asked.

And in the middle is you, with about $1,124 less each year thanks to the new state income tax hike.

So we wait for the outcomes of four court cases and a union negotiation. Whatever happens in each, you lose. The question is, “How much?”