City gives workers chance to unionize

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

The Illinois Labor Relations Board reached an agreement with the city of Evanston Thursday that paves the way for Evanston employees to unionize.

The approval came almost a month after the city decided against voluntarily recognizing the new union, which would represent about 270 city employees.

Under an agreement between city officials and representatives from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), 19 part-time city employees would join Local 1891, the city’s current union. Another 270 employees would form the new union, said Kathy Steichen, a union organizer.

Steichen said the compromise — which bypasses the usual labor board procedures for unionization — was a good decision for the city.

“The city realized citizens did not want them to be spending thousands and thousands of dollars (in legal costs) by going to a hearing in front of the labor board,” Steichen said. “It could be days or weeks of hearing.”

City Manager Roger Crum said the compromise was better than voluntary recognition because Evanston City Council did not want the union to make a blanket decision without allowing the affected employees to choose.

“Our belief is that every employee should have the decision to be represented,” Crum said.

The Evanston Human Resources Department met with Crum and AFSCME officials during the past few weeks to come to the agreement, Crum said.

“The only issue we disagreed (on) was the list of possible unionized workers,” he said.

AFSCME presented to the city a list of about 400 Evanston employees who are not currently unionized, according to Crum. The Human Resources Department and other city officials reviewed every employee and position against criteria set by state labor laws. The city then ruled that only 270 employees qualified.

“It was extremely fast,” Crum said. “Once we saw the list, within 30 days we were meeting to go over (it).”

The first of two labor board elections will be held Feb. 13 for the 19 part-time employees. The other 270 employees, which include clerks, engineers and librarians, will vote in a second election on Feb. 27.

The votes will be counted immediately after the election, Steichen said. If a majority are in favor of unionization, collective bargaining with the city would begin soon after.

Steichen said some city employees have said they were discriminated against because of their interest in union affiliation. Others complained they were interrogated by their employers, and one city office told its employees they couldn’t wear union buttons, she said.

If the allegations are true, AFSCME can file charges with the labor board, Steichen said.

But Crum said the claims are false.

“There is the question of whether a button should be worn at a front desk,” Crum said. “That’s the only issued that surfaced. The city has nothing against AFSCME.”

Ray Summers, the president of the city’s current AFSCME branch, said he has worked to contact unorganized employees and answer questions they have. He said the cards that employees signed to begin the process of unionizing may predict the outcome of the election.

“I’m extremely confident this (will pass),” he said. “I don’t see those people changing their minds anytime soon.”