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Window narrowing to avoid imminent Will County strike

Updated: December 9, 2013 10:13AM



JOLIET — Time appears to be running out for Will County to settle on a new contract with its biggest employees union.

About 1,000 members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1028 could walk off the job as early as Wednesday if nothing gets resolved before then.

County officials expect to receive a five-day strike notice by Friday, which would coincide with the union’s earlier notice that it planned to terminate its contract with the county on Wednesday.

AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall said the strike notice “could come at any time.”

“Look, there are seven more days (until contract termination), so time is running short,” Lindall said. “It’s disappointing. It’s frustrating. We don’t see a reason the county should not have a more constructive posture at the table.”

A strike could affect a wide variety of offices, ranging from highway department workers who plow county highways in case of snow to county clerk’s workers who issue birth and death certificates.

A settlement appears unlikely after seven hours of negotiations Tuesday failed to produce a contract and the two sides couldn’t agree on another date to meet. Both sides blame the other for the lack of a new meeting date.

Nick Palmer, chief of staff for County Executive Larry Walsh, said the county team wanted to meet Thursday or Friday, but the union said no. Palmer said county officials found out later that the union would be working on strike preparations on those days. And Monday is Veterans Day.

Lindall said one of the dates didn’t work because a key union negotiator had a death in his family and would be attending a funeral. He said the union wanted to meet Wednesday but couldn’t because the county representatives said they weren’t ready.

The disagreement over meeting dates is just one example of how the two sides just can’t come together after 15 months of negotiations.

The two key issues all along have been cost-of-living raises and health insurance costs. The union wants bigger raises if employees are going to be forced to pay more for insurance, in some cases double. The county says workers already get 2.5 percent “step” increases each year based on seniority and those should be considered raises.

On top of the step raises, the county has offered a total of 4.5 percent in cost-of-living raises over the remaining three years of a four-year contract. Workers at the top of the pay scale would get an additional $200 a month because they don’t get step increases.

But county officials also want workers to pay a percentage of their insurance premiums rather than a percentage of salary toward medical insurance.

Bruce Tidwell, the county’s human resources director, said all other collar counties have this system. Also, Will County is the only county to create three salary bands so workers who earn less would pay a lower percentage of the premium, he said.

Lindall said even with the raises being offered by the county, some workers would not come out ahead with the higher insurance cost and these are workers who haven’t had a cost-of-living raise in four years because of the poor economy.

He said 40 percent of union members earn less than $30,000 a year and their average wage is $35,000. That average doesn’t include sheriff’s police, jail guards and assistant state’s attorneys, none of whom by law can strike, he said.

Lindall would not reveal how much Local 1028 is asking for in a cost-of-living raise, saying the union doesn’t want to negotiate a contract in the media. Also, he said the raises are tied to insurance costs, so the issues are too interconnected to reveal only one.

Palmer said members of the county board, which has 13 Democrats and 13 Republicans, agree that the county can’t raid its cash reserves or Regional Transportation Authority sales tax funds without hurting long-term capital and road projects.

“We can’t max out the credit cards or use all our rainy day funds to pay for today,” he said.

Both sides say they don’t want a strike. But both sides have been preparing for one.

“A strike will hinder county services, but it won’t stop county services,” Palmer said.

In a press release issued Tuesday night, Local 1028 president Dave Delrose said the union hopes to get fair pay and affordable health care for its members without disrupting county services, “ ... but management’s unwillingness to compromise is counterproductive to that goal.”

The county has 15 union contracts that all expired Dec. 1. Seven are with Local 1028, including one that covers 600 workers who fall under the county executive’s office. That’s the main one being negotiated now because that contract often sets the terms for pay and benefits for all members of Local 1028.



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