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Will Co. strike starts in Joliet

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Updated: December 20, 2013 6:18AM



JOLIET — Two women on opposite ends of downtown Joliet had vastly different opinions on the strike by Will County government workers that began at 7 a.m. Monday.

Brooke Brewer, a steward for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1028, bundled up against the cold to picket in front of the courthouse.

“We’re going to stay out here as long as it takes,” said Brewer, who works in the recorder of deeds office. “We have a solid cause and an amazing group of people who are all vital to the operation of this county.”

While Brewer and hundreds of other union workers picketed numerous county government sites, one Local 1028 member sat in a warm office at the county office building. The woman, who did not want her name used for fear of retribution, said she had no qualms about showing up for work while her co-workers were on strike.

“It’s crazy,” she said of the strike. “I’m grateful for a job. I don’t agree with the union. I think they’re greedy.”

Union and county negotiators bargained for 15 months with no agreement on cost-of-living raises and workers’ share of health insurance costs.

The county has offered a 4.5 percent cost-of-living increase, phased in over three years, on top of 2.5 percent “step” increases employees get for additional years of service. The county considers the step increases to be raises.

But Brewer said the step increases are not really raises but pay bumps that employees get for staying with what often is a low-paying job.

The county also wants to switch how employees pay for medical insurance. Instead of paying 1 percent or 2 percent of salary, workers would have to pay a percentage of the premium. The change would boost the portion that employees pay from 5.7 percent to 8 percent in 2014, to 9 percent in 2015 and 10 percent in 2016.

Originally, the county wanted employees to pay 10 percent of their insurance costs, starting next year. If the county phases in the increase, it would cost about $1 million in savings, said Nick Palmer, chief of staff for County Executive Larry Walsh. That may mean layoffs for county workers, Palmer said.

“We can’t print money,” he said. “We don’t want to borrow and spend. ... People don’t like to be told ‘no,’ but there’s only so much money.”

While union workers picketed a variety of sites on Monday, including the courthouse, county building, jail, health department, Sunny Hill Nursing Home and satellite offices in Bolingbrook, Romeoville and Crete, county government continued, Palmer said.

“County services are open,” he said.

Vendors were providing meals at the jail and nursing services at the nursing home. Townships and municipalities are ready to assist with road cleanup should it snow, Palmer said.

And the Illinois Labor Relations Board was going to decide Monday if 911 dispatchers and deputy coroners were essential employees who could not go on strike. By law, the county jail guards cannot go on strike, and assistant state’s attorneys would not walk off the job for ethical reasons, county officials said.

About 1,000 of the union’s 1,260 workers were eligible to strike. Palmer said department heads were tallying the number of workers who showed up on Monday, and the county would have a better idea of how many Local 1028 members were crossing the picket line later in the day.

At least one office was well staffed. County Clerk Nancy Schultz Voots said all but three of her 27 employees showed up for work Monday. Two others are on sick leave.

“I’m very happy with the ones that came,” she said of the union workers. “I have a good group.”

Workers continued to picket and chant slogans at the courthouse, even as fumes from asphalt work on Jefferson Street drifted their way.

“I think we’re going to be successful,” bailiff Ed Breen said. “We’re prepared to go the long haul.”

He said Local 1028 workers agreed to forego cost-of-living raises for four years because of the recession.

“They’ve gone so long without an increase, they have no choice,” he said of the strike.

When Joanne Kurek, a clerk in the felony courtooms, spied a co-worker crossing the picket line, she yelled at the woman to stop.

“Don’t do it,” she shouted. “Don’t cross.”

Kurek said county workers have been working short staffed for years, but she doesn’t think the general public realizes it.

“We are the nuts and bolts of the community,” she said. “We keep this community running, and we deserve an increase in our pay. We want to be treated fairly.”

Local 1028 salaries range from $22,232 for an entry level worker in the circuit court clerk’s office to $94,500 for assistant state’s attorneys, according to Bruce Tidwell, the county’s human resources director. He said Local 1028 members average $41,285 in pay.

The union says its members average $35,000, but that is for workers who are eligible to strike and doesn’t include correctional officers and prosecutors.

Palmer said no matter how long the strike lasts, some damage has been done to the county already.

“It’s negative,” he said. “It’s not good, and the wounds are probably going to be there for awhile.”

Both sides say the other hasn’t compromised enough. And no new negotiations are scheduled.



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