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Reeder: Taxpayers in dark on state-union negotiations

Scott Reeder

Scott Reeder

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Updated: April 1, 2013 7:24AM



The state’s largest public employee union is making noise about going on strike. Why it’s considering doing so depends on who you believe.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees would have you think that Gov. Pat Quinn is a horrible ogre out to oppress working people.

It’s an interesting description, especially when you consider that for most of Quinn’s long political career he has been known as a labor advocate and just two short years ago AFSCME endorsed him for governor.

Quinn, legislative leaders and others contend that the union is oblivious to the state’s financial reality. Illinois’ five public pension systems are underfunded long term to the tune of roughly $96 billion, and the state has a backlog of $9.3 billion in unpaid bills and the worst credit rating of any state in the nation.

Quinn administration officials say AFSCME keeps demanding more when there isn’t more to be had.

Over the years, I’ve learned to give little credence to what’s trickling out of collective bargaining negotiations.

Both sides have an agenda after all. And just what is said behind closed doors is anyone’s guess.

That, of course, raises an important question: Why do we have negotiations with government employee unions behind closed doors?

After all, taxpayers will be paying for whatever is agreed upon in those discussions. Shouldn’t we know exactly what’s being discussed before it’s agreed upon?

Even state lawmakers are in the dark about what’s happening in the negotiations.

In fact, legislators never get a voice in labor contracts. The governor can act on his own and simply sign an agreement before voters have been able to weigh in.

But we aren’t the only ones being kept in the dark. So are the rank-and-file union members, who often are dependent on whatever information their union bosses spoon-feed them during the talks.

Why not open up negotiations for newspapers, policy groups and the general public to hear what is said? After all, Quinn long has considered himself to be an advocate of open government.

Why should we be dependent on whatever politicians and union bosses choose to share out of the collective bargaining sessions?

“Why should this all happen behind closed doors?” state Rep. Jeanne Ives (R-Wheaton) said. “If the public only knew what was happening, it could put pressure on elected officials not to give so much. Right now, there really isn’t a public discussion on these contracts.”

Tentative union contracts should be posted online so workers, taxpayers and others can provide input before an agreement is finalized.

Even now, possibly on the brink of a strike, we are dependent on secondhand or thirdhand accounts of what’s happening in labor negotiations.

For example, AFSCME representatives said Quinn’s administration initially sought significant wage reductions, according to the Associated Press. But now it wants workers to accept a multiyear pay freeze while also granting concessions in health insurance coverage.

What are the details of concessions being sought? What would the cost to the taxpayers be? Who stands to gain? Who stands to lose?

We don’t know. We are left depending on whatever trickles out from the closed-door meetings.

With the state teetering on the cusp of a government worker strike, we, the people of Illinois, deserve to know what issues separate labor and management.

After all, we will be the ones paying for it.

Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and the journalist-in-residence at the Illinois Policy Institute, a nonprofit research group that supports the free market and limited government.



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