Some lawmakers frustrated with AFSCME negotiations
Thousands of state workers are finishing a vote this Labor Day on their proposed new contract with the Blagojevich administration.
But some lawmakers are frustrated with the way the negotiating process has been handled, leaving them in the dark even though they eventually will have to figure out how to pay for the contract.
“I wish there was a way the legislature’s representatives could have a say in the process,” Rep. Gary Hannig, D-Litchfield, a top budget negotiator for House Democrats, said last week. “In the end, we have to appropriate the money for it.”
Negotiations on a new AFSCME contract this time were longer and more contentious than in previous years. Before it was over, a mediator had to be brought in to help resolve the major sticking point, the demand by the administration that state workers pay substantially more for their health insurance.
Once a tentative deal was struck, though, the pattern of previous negotiations was repeated. Both sides agreed not to discuss contract details until union members finished a ratification vote.
“As long as it is a tentative agreement and not a final contract, we believe AFSCME members should be able to review the contract, study its terms and ask any questions in confidence,” said AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. “It’s always possible the agreement will not be ratified and the parties will have to return to the table.”
“Our belief is that until the proposed contract is ratified, there is no contract,” agreed Blagojevich spokeswoman Kelley Quinn in an e-mailed response to a reporter’s questions. “Also, the longstanding practice has been, as a courtesy to the union and in fairness to employees, to let the entire membership receive the entire contents of the contract for their consideration before releasing any partial information that could be misunderstood.”
Steve Schnorf negotiated four AFSCME contracts while working for former Govs. Jim Edgar and George Ryan. He said the practice of not divulging contract details until a ratification vote was in place before he got there.
“That’s the rules the union wanted us to play by, and that’s the rules we played by,” Schnorf said. “I think the union wants to spin (positive) details of the contract as it is presented to the membership.”
Both Reps. Frank Mautino, D-Spring Valley and Bill Black, R-Danville, said they think it would be better for both sides to quickly release details of a contract once a tentative agreement is reached. Mautino, though, noted that having the details wouldn’t make a difference to the contract itself.
Unlike a city council or school board – which vote on labor contracts affecting their employees – the General Assembly doesn’t have veto power over state worker contracts. Labor contracts are negotiated between unions and state officeholders. Once the unions ratify them, the contracts are in place.
For Charles Davis, director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the University of Missouri, that’s all the more reason to disclose details. He said it is a “critical issue” because the public and lawmakers have no say in what’s been voted on before it’s put in place.
“It’s kind of a recipe for disaster,” Davis said. “To me, it encourages secrecy.”
Davis said he’s unaware of disputes arising in other states over whether details should be made public before the contracts are ratified.
Rep. Rich Brauer, R-Petersburg, said he doesn’t mind that details usually aren’t released earlier until a contract is ratified. However, he thinks representatives from the legislature should be allowed into negotiating sessions to keep an eye on things.
“It should be like the budget process. If they expect us to pay for it, we should be part of the process,” Brauer said.
In fact, lawmakers tried to do that in the early 1990s.
“The union was adamantly opposed to observers,” said Schnorf, who was involved in those negotiations. “They felt it was a violation of the concept of negotiations.”
Lindall declined to comment on suggestions for changing the contract process.
Ryan Keith contributed to this report. Doug Finke can be reached at (217) 788-1527 firstname.lastname@example.org.