To Arbitrate or Not to Arbitrate

Last-minute changes to collective bargaining rules pass

The Illinois General Assembly has voted to strip state workers of the right to strike, and the unions actively lobbied to make it happen.

A bill passed Saturday would apply mediation and arbitration procedures to all state workers in Illinois. The procedures are already used when negotiations fail between governments and police, fire and other emergency workers when they can’t agree on a contract. Emergency workers like police and firefighters are not allowed to strike because it would endanger lives if they did.

Arbitration is a process through which a binding labor contract is put together by a panel of seven arbitrators agreed upon by both sides, and one and one neutral panel chairman. Each side puts forward proposals and argues for them and the panel picks which parts of which proposals go into the final contract. The panel’s decision becomes the contract.

Under Senate Bill 1229 passed last week, the mediation process would kick in at most 30 days after the expiration of the current contract if the state and the workers aren’t able to agree on a contract before then. If a mediator still cannot get the two sides to agree after another 30 days, either side can call for arbitration.

Republicans objected to the arbitration bill in both houses. They called it a power grab and a way of taking the governor – and thus any taxpayer representation – out of contract negotiations.

Democrats arguing in favor of the bill said they were particularly concerned about statements the governor made during the Republican primary alluding to a potential strike or lockout and government shutdown. They said the governor was talking about it almost gleefully, as if he was looking forward to a clash with union labor.

State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, said that the threat of a strike or a lockout is normally a tool used by either side to force moderation in a negotiation.

“It seems clear to me and to many others that when one side actually is courting a strike, that moderating influence disappears,” Harmon said.

Harmon also alluded to comments the governor made referencing former President Ronald Reagan’s famous clash with the air-traffic controllers union in the 1980s. Reagan fired more than 11,000 striking workers, a move that would soon after result in the union’s demise.

“We may have to go through a little rough time,” Rauner told a Republican audience during the Republican primary. “If we have to do what Ronald Reagan did with the air-traffic controllers, if we sort of have to do a do-over and shut things down for a little while, that’s what we’re gonna do.”

Republicans cried foul over using Rauner’s words to suggest he hadn’t been negotiating in good faith.

But Democrats point out that the governor has hardly been hiding his feelings on the matter.

“This is an administration that has made it clear that in its view, whether it be on why we lack the necessary revenue to pay for services or why we lack the ability to build a new school, that the problem is organized labor, and they must be ground to the dust,” said Rep. Christian Mitchell, D-Chicago.

Many of the Republicans arguing against the bill said that when contract negotiations go to arbitration, the unions tend to win. But the numbers tell a different story.

Illinois Times looked at all of the issues that were settled by interest arbitration in 2014. Of the 119 issues where a clear winner and loser could be discerned, arbitrators sided with the unions on 51 issues, while the government won on 68 issues.

When contacted, a representative of the governor’s office wouldn’t say if he planned to sign or veto the bill. Once sent to the governor, he has 60 days to sign or veto the bill before it becomes law. If he vetoes the bill, the General Assembly will have another 15 days to override the veto. That means it could be August before the bill is made law. The contract it applies to expires July first.

Contact Alan Kozeluh at

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