Paul Kersey | Director of Labor Policy, Illinois Policy Institute
The American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, or AFSCME, Council 31 sent a message to its employees last week urging them to prepare for a walkout. The union conceded that it would not be able to provide much in the way of strike funds, calling on the rank-and-file to save up money in case of a lengthy strike.
For taxpayers, the message does not mean that a strike is right around the corner; more likely it’s still down the road, possibly in the spring. But the odds of a strike are higher than they were before. Illinoisans face a month or two of anxiety, during which AFSCME will likely edge toward a strike, and it will be very hard to know if the union is serious.
The law governing state employees is a bit different from the one that applies to teachers. The teacher bargaining law requires that both sides file “final” offers with the state. (There’s often more bargaining afterward so these offers are not necessarily final. But they do give us some idea where the parties stand.) That doesn’t apply here, so residents will be even more in the dark than usual.
The teacher law also requires that the union hold a strike authorization vote. That law does not apply to AFSCME either, but it is common for unions to hold one anyway. AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Henry Bayer has confirmed that his union will hold a strike authorization vote. There’s a practical reason for this: nothing would be more embarrassing for AFSCME than to call a strike and then have everyone at the office the next day.
Assuming the strike vote passes, the next big step will be the filing of a notice of intent to strike. Under state law the union must warn the state at least five business days before staging a walkout.
This does not mean that state employees start walking picket lines as soon as the five days run out. The union and the state will probably engage in last-ditch negotiations. But after the notice runs out, the union can call a strike at any point. In teacher strikes the union usually gives about a day’s final warning before workers finally go on strike, and it is likely that AFSCME will do something similar.
Those are the things we can watch for, but many important things will be hidden from Illinois residents who pay taxes and rely on state government for essential services. The governor’s office has been coy about future bargaining sessions, saying only that more bargaining is scheduled for later this month. The overall state of bargaining can only be guessed at by reading between the lines of union and administration spokesmen. We still don’t know the most contentious issues, what both sides are offering, the tone of the conversations and many other important details.
The people of Illinois can watch for signs of a strike, like the scheduling of strike votes and the filing of notices, but they deserve to know a lot more about how the negotiations are going.
The strike process in brief
The next major step toward a strike will be a strike authorization vote. This is not required by state law but is common practice and serves the purpose of confirming that union members are willing to go on strike.
Assuming the vote passes, AFSCME Council 31 officials will be able to file a strike notice with the state.
Five business days after filing the notice, AFSCME Council 31 officials will be able to call a strike.