City, local unions may start new contract negotiations soon as budget crisis continues

Billy Kobin, Reporter

Evanston officials said they predict difficulties in upcoming union contract negotiations due to the state budget crisis and lack of pension funding.

Three of the four major public unions in the city have contracts up for negotiation at the end of the year. In these discussions, representatives of the unions will work with city officials to set union members’ wages, benefits and working conditions for upcoming years.

Negotiations for new contracts may start as soon as next month, but this process will be hard because of the continuing gridlock in Springfield, said Erika Storlie, Evanston’s deputy city manager and administrative services director. Illinois is currently in its 11th month without a state budget.

“It’s going to be very difficult with negotiations because of the uncertainty at the state level and because there are continued deficits in funding for police and fire pensions,” Storlie said.

Contracts for the Evanston Firefighters Association Local 742 and the local Illinois Fraternal Order of Police patrol officers union expire at the end of the year along with the contract for Evanston’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1891, which represents some city employees. Not all public employees in Evanston are affiliated with a union, including the officials who negotiate the contracts.

The current contracts for the three unions run from January 1, 2014, to December 31, 2016, and there is no way to predict how long new contracts would last for, said Matthew Smith, president of the Evanston Firefighters Association Local 742.

FOP patrol union officials were could not be reached for comment.

In an interview with The Daily last month, Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl said city officials working through the new union contracts will have to deal with the repercussions of inadequate pension funding by previous City Councils. Pensions are part of the benefits negotiated by unions.

“So one thing we’re going to have to do is keep raises as low as possible because that’s the only way to control pension costs that’s available to us,” Tisdahl said.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has proposed the creation of “right-to-work” zones throughout the state that would remove bargaining rights from unions and would not require employees to join unions at the workplace, but Evanston officials have said they believe right-to-work measures are unlikely to pass.

Leaders of the local unions said their plan is to have ratified bargaining agreements between the city and unions in place prior to the expiration of the current contracts, but that agreements are not always reached by the end of contracts.

Daniel Kwiecinski, president of AFSCME Local 1891 said although a lack of a state budget is concerning, AFSCME Local 1891 has not yet had its pension funds touched by the state.

“It’s a big concern about the state not having a budget, but as far as our pension goes … it’s not a big deal right now,” Kwiecinski said. “Our main concern is the lay-offs. We don’t want anybody laid off.”

To help account for the lack of a state budget, Storlie said the city has recently put more money into pension funds than usual to help bulk them up. However, Storlie said pension funding levels are still not ideal, and she said a state budget is needed to ensure pension funds will have enough money for the future.

“It’s been a very difficult process and will take a very long time (to work through),” she said. “Our pension funds are right now not funded at a level that we would like them to be.”

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