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Will County labor talks hit stalemate

Updated: November 25, 2013 1:11PM



JOLIET — Both sides in the labor dispute between Will County and its biggest employee union said they were disappointed by Tuesday’s failure to get a contract settlement.

Union officials said the county “refused to move an inch.” County officials said the union took “two steps backward.”

If a strike occurs, it’s unlikely to happen until November or later, even though union members have authorized a strike to be called if necessary, Bruce Tidwell, the county’s human resources manager, said.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1028 has seven contracts with the county that cover 1,260 employees. Most of the negotiations so far have centered on the county executive’s contract, which covers about 600 workers.

Illinois law requires at least one session with a federal mediator before a union can strike. Mediation has taken place with the county executive’s contract, but not the others.

Local 1028 could strike with just those 600 employees, but it seems more likely that it would walk out with the roughly 1,000 workers who are eligible to strike, Tidwell said.

That means at least one mediation session has to be held for contracts covering the circuit court clerk’s office, the health department, two categories of nurses at Sunny Hill Nursing Home, the chief judge’s office and the River Valley Justice Center. Mediation sessions are scheduled in November for some of those groups, Tidwell said.

Both sides say they want to avoid a strike. But negotiations have been going on for 14 months with little progress, all of the contracts expired Dec. 1 and county officials said Tuesday that they made their “last and final offer.”

The two sides are split over pay raises and health insurance costs. The county maintains that 2.5 percent “step” increases for additional years of employment are raises, but the union says members haven’t had a cost-of-living raise since 2009.

Health insurance costs are another major issue. The county wants employees to pay a percentage of the health insurance premium rather than a percentage of salary, which currently is at 1 percent for individual coverage and 2 percent for family coverage.

Local 1028 says the county’s proposal would decrease take-home pay for some employees, and in some cases, union members would be paying double for medical insurance.

“We presented a proposal to management that made significant movement toward sharing future cost increases for health care, a proposal we believe offered the framework for a possible settlement,” Local 1028 president Dave Delrose said in a news release issued late Tuesday night. “Regrettably, the county board’s representatives rejected our proposal out of hand, said their last offer was final and walked away from the table.”

Tidwell said county negotiators were surprised that the union suddenly rejected a plan to have employees pay a percentage of the premium, when that has been the framework for discussions since July.

“We were making one step forward and two steps back,” he said of Tuesday’s change.

The county is holding firm on its offer because 80 percent of its main operating budget is eaten up by wages and benefits, Tidwell said, and “there’s only so much money to go around.”

The county board’s insurance and personnel committee held a closed session Wednesday morning to discuss the stalemate.

“I have hope we’ll have a meeting of the minds,” said committee chairwoman Diane Zigrossi (D-Crest Hill), who also is the county board’s Democratic caucus chair. “Right now, everything is on the table for both sides, and we all have concerns for our workers, especially because the holiday season is coming up.”

Board member Jim Moustis (R-Frankfort Township), who chairs the Republican caucus, said everyone is working for a settlement.

“It is my hope that our employees will not go on strike, and we’ll be able to work this situation out, and that our employees will stay on the job and continue to serve the public,” he said.

Local 1028 represents workers in the court system, health department, highway department, Sunny Hill Nursing Home and county jail and in the offices of the sheriff, coroner, recorder, assessor, clerk, chief judge, executive and state’s attorney.

Tidwell said the last time county employees went on strike was in the early 1970s.

“The damage that’s done (during a strike) lasts for years, and we don’t need that,” he said.



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