By Pat Barcas
An independent arbitrator ruled that the state must pay a 2 percent wage increase to state workers, an increase that was contractually obligated but was being challenged by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn. The decision serves as a powerful enforcement that collective bargaining is strong in Illinois, and workers contracts are just as binding as any other contract.
Quinn is appealing the ruling by arbitrator Edwin Benn, saying cancellation of the raises would affect about 30,000 state workers and shave $75 million off the state budget.
Mary Shesgreen of Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice was positive about the decision, but not Quinn’s appeal.
“We are very pleased that the arbitrator made the right decision. Contracts with workers are just as sacred as any other contract. If the arbitrator had decided otherwise, it would have been a terrible precedent,” she said. “We’re deeply disappointed that Gov. Quinn will be appealing the decision, we thought he was supposed to be a champion of labor.”
The initial July 1 announcement by Quinn’s office was met by area protests by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) as well as Northern Illinois Jobs with Justice. The governor’s office notified 14 state agencies and employee unions that their 2 percent pay increase, as stipulated in their contract, would not be fulfilled this year because there is not enough money in the state budget.
This led to federal lawsuit filed by AFSCME against Quinn and the state of Illinois as a result of the pay freeze. The union has also began the arbitration proceedings that led to this ruling last week:
Under the mandatory, clear and simple terms of the negotiated language, the state must pay the 2 percent wage increase effective July 1, 2011. As a matter of contract, the state has no choice.
AFSCME Executive Director Henry Bayer responded positively to the decision in a news release.
“Frontline state employees are out there every day doing the real work of state government and the Quinn Administration, as their employer, should keep its commitments to them,” he said. “We have always said what’s at stake here is much more than a pay increase. “This is a question of whether the fundamental right of working people to bargain collectively will be upheld in Illinois,” he said. “We welcome this ruling because it makes clear that the governor cannot simply break a contract at will.”
Pat Barcas’ e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.