Column

Guest view: Labor arbitration best tool to protect vital services, resolve state contracts

Gov. Bruce Rauner and a variety of state workers, including those who perform essential services such as our state’s child care providers and home care workers whom we represent, have failed to agree to a contract.

No one is served by perpetual labor strife, which is why Illinois workers and taxpayers need a responsible mechanism to come to an agreement on state contracts so as not to disrupt vital services. That’s why the Illinois House needs to follow the Senate’s bipartisan lead and overturn Gov. Rauner’s veto to enact an interest arbitration law (Senate Bill 1229) so that a panel of independent mediators can come to a fair resolution.

There has been a lot of confusion about this bill. This legislation simply extends the three-decades-old option of fair arbitration, not just to police officers, firefighters and prison guards, but to other state workers.

In addition, the arbitrator will be “neutral” and mutually agreed upon by the state and the union. The real reason Gov. Rauner strongly opposes SB 1229 is that neutral arbitration means a contract will result from the process. Based on the governor’s actions and statements, his intention is to pursue an anti-union agenda to take away the voice for workers and avoid making written agreements governing state employees.

On Aug. 4, the Northwest Herald published an editorial in opposition to Senate Bill 1229, saying it would “take the power of negotiating with the state’s labor unions out of the governor’s hands and place it into those of an unelected panel of arbitrators that has no accountability to taxpayers.” We respectfully disagree with this analysis.

SB 1229 does not give unions like ours more power. It merely protects the state’s workforce of home care workers and child care providers who support and empower working families. The truth is Illinois needs a stable and well-trained workforce more than ever.

A recent report from Innovation Illinois that studied the economic impact of investing in caregiver programs, such as home care and child care, found that for every dollar of spending on these programs, it generated $3.74 in economic activity. Home care, in particular, saved the state an estimated $1 billion in nursing home and institutional costs. And finally, these vital programs created more than 144,000 jobs directly and 67,000 jobs indirectly. This is why projecting and strengthening Illinois’ workforce should be a top priority for all elected officials.

Our two state contracts, which expired June 30, represent some 52,000 workers. Gov. Rauner is making unbelievable demands and is showing a level of hostility toward unions that we have never seen from a governor of either party. Gov. Rauner insisted at various points that we give up health care for our already low-paid workers; that our providers, already the lowest-paid workers in the state, agree to a four-year wage freeze; that they give up their ability to communicate with their union; that the state stop collecting dues; and that we eliminate vital training for thousands of providers.

The truth is we did not initially take a position on this legislation but grew into our support after sitting for months at the bargaining table with the Rauner administration, which, basically, refuses to acknowledge our right to exist.

Gov. Rauner’s goal in this budget debacle and shutdown has been to break the collective power of public and private-sector unions in ways that have nothing to do with saving taxpayers. Even former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar criticized Rauner for pursing an anti-union agenda instead of dealing with the state budget.

Gov. Rauner has said he will not lock out state workers. And likewise, SB 1229 forecloses any strike from state workers because it forces the arbitrators to resolve contract disputes. In other words, both sides recognize the need for compromise.

This legislation, interest arbitration, is a fair solution to the conflict between Rauner’s agenda and the need to continue vital services that, if were stopped, would do grave damage to the state’s workforce and harm our local economy.

SB 1229 will help level the playing field and preserve stability in Illinois so that legislators can search for real solutions to our long-term structural problems.

• Keith Kelleher is president of SEIU Healthcare Illinois, a unit of the Service Employees International Union.

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