Just days into his term of office, Gov. J.B. Pritzker last week signaled an abrupt about-face in government relations with organized labor after four years of rancor.
The Democrat took a series of pro-worker actions, highlighted by reinstatement of long-postponed, experience-based salary increases for state workers represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Restoration of the so-called step increases is good news in itself not only to the 20,000 employees affected but also, advocates contend, to taxpayers. Step increases, required by state law, are paid to employees in their first eight to 10 years who, as a savings to state government, start at below-market rates as incentive to gain experience and stick around. Former Gov. Bruce Rauner halted them in 2015 when AFSCME's last contract expired.
But the unspoken message was much bigger: Pritzker wants labor peace.
"The right to organize, the ability to negotiate fair pay for hard work, the promise of strong workplace safety standards, workers deserve nothing less," Pritzker said last week.
Granted, he also wants peace at the top. He persuaded lawmakers to change state law to allow 15 percent pay increases to cabinet members and assistant agency directors, arguing that he needed to dangle higher salaries to compete for top talent. And the billionaire created a corporation through which he's using his own money to double the pay of his top staff members.
During an event in Manteno on Friday, Pritzker declared negotiations would resume "immediately," although there's no date set.
AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch is encouraged.
"Gov. Pritzker clearly values public service workers who protect kids, care for veterans and people with disabilities, keep prisons safe, maintain state parks and more," Lynch said. "And he understands that strong unions are the way working people are heard, respected and fairly compensated."
Pritzker took other actions favorable to organized labor and working people last week. He re-established union-friendly, pre-project labor agreements on construction jobs, banned a hiring practice considered discriminatory toward women and directed that wage-theft and day-labor complaints be settled quickly.
The new governor is giving clear signs that high-profile litigation with AFSCME is on the wane. Appellate courts have ruled that Rauner should pay the back-due step increases , and that the negotiations his team left two years ago were not at an inextricable "impasse."
"We're living up to the court orders," Pritzker said Friday. "That wasn't being done by the prior administration and that's our job. Our job is to follow the law."
Rauner's administration sought permission to appeal the 4th District Appellate Court's ruling on impasse to the Supreme Court, and although he has left office, the deadline for that appeal has not expired. Pritzker's intention to return to the bargaining table would render any declaration of impasse moot.
Rep. Tim Butler, a Springfield Republican whose constituency is well-represented by unionized state government workers, hopes kick-started negotiations culminate in a contract that's fair to employees and taxpayers. But he's concerned about a state workforce that is over 90 percent unionized, with subordinates in some cases making more than bosses, and the unattractiveness of middle-manager jobs because they've faced a freeze in their merit-compensation pay plan for up to 20 years.
"I hope we can get past the strife of the last two years over the contract," Butler said. "I didn't always agree with Gov. Rauner, I wish he would have stayed at the table. But some of the concerns that the governor talked about were solid — the high percentage of union employees and trying to make sure we have a fiscally responsible contract when it comes to the budget."