Evanston employees vote ‘yes’ to joining union, then celebrate

Dalia Naamani-Goldman

After nearly nine months of deliberation, more than 200 Evanston employees will unionize after taking a vote Thursday.

The employees, who include librarians, engineers and clerks, are now represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) — and now have bargaining power in negotiations with the city.

Out of 216 employees voting, 146 were in favor of unionization, providing the majority necessary to join AFSCME.

Ariel Jackson, who works in the city’s social services department, said she didn’t expect the unionizing process to be as easy as it was. She said the atmosphere at the polls was exciting.

“I felt like we were back in the ’60s in the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “It was very empowering.”

Employees cast their votes throughout the day Thursday at the Evanston Civic Center, 2100 Ridge Ave., and the Robert Crown Community Center, 1701 Main St. After votes were tallied by Illinois Labor Relations Board officials at the Civic Center, many of the new union members celebrated at the American Legion Hall, 1030 Central St. AFSCME T-shirts and new union cards awaited them at the party.

“I think the vote shows the will of the employees,” said AFSCME staff representative Ted Loda. “This is an activity that they are engaged in collectively. This is their union. They know they have a voice in the union.”

Some city employees wanted Evanston City Council to voluntarily recognize the union in January without a vote. But City Manager Roger Crum said the council refused a blanket recognition because it wanted to give workers an opportunity to choose.

AFSCME Local 1891’s contract with Evanston expires today, and union representatives are in the process of renegotiating the details. Should the new members decide to form their own chapter, Crum said negotiations with them would begin as soon as the city is notified.

“It’s a good group of people, and it’s what the employees wanted to do,” Crum said.

Raymond Summers, president of Local 1891, said the new union members likely will join the existing chapter instead of forming a new one. If this occurs, the chapter’s executive board will have to be restructured so that new members receive “fair representation,” he said.

Ald. Steven Bernstein (4th) said he expected the unionization to occur all along. He said the city will handle negotiations with new AFSCME members as it does with all other unions representing Evanston employees.

“We’re going to pay them what we can afford to pay,” Bernstein said.

Lenedra Wallace, who also works in the social services department, said she was pleased with the vote but now wants to see results.

“It’s like, ‘OK, this is the first hurdle,'” she said. “Now how does everything fall into place?”

Didi Swartz, who works at the Chandler-Newberger Community Center, 1028 Central St., did not vote, although she said many of her co-workers did. She said her co-workers had mixed views about the benefits of unionizing.

“Some people were against it because they don’t feel like paying union dues and they aren’t sure it will help them,” said Swartz, a Medill senior. “Others are for it because bosses can’t ask anything unreasonable of their employees, and they get (better) health benefits, too.”

Evanston resident Sandra Chavis, an executive secretary with the engineering department who voted to unionize, said the union will allow her to voice her concerns to the city.

“We’ve been freed,” she said. “We’ve been liberated. Happy employees don’t seek out unions.”