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Court: State worker union to get automatic pay hikes despite Rauner freeze

SPRINGFIELD, Illinois (Illinois News Network) —  Gov. Bruce Rauner won at the polls last week but was dealt a loss in the courts, when the Illinois Supreme Court said it wouldn’t hear his case against mandatory public sector pay raises.

The state’s highest court refused to hear Rauner’s appeal challenging the legality of taking away automatic pay increases, called step increases, from about 40 percent of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 membership. This refusal essentially makes the appellate verdict the law of the land.

Rauner stopped the step increases as part of negotiations that stalled in June 2015. He and the union still have yet to hammer out a new contract.

A spokesperson for the governor said Rauner still disagrees with the ruling because “the state is not obligated to pay wage increases because the General Assembly has not appropriated sufficient funding.”

Lee Adler, professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, said Rauner isn’t fighting unions for the state, but for his campaign.

“I believe that Mr. Rauner has used all of his battles with the public-sector unions to try to increase his political popularity,” he said. “[Step increases] provide the state of Illinois with a set of built-in incentives that encourage hard-working public employees to remain in their positions and develop further skills.”

Adler, who also represents union firefighters as a practicing attorney in New York, said it’s common for employees to forgo a step increase as part of a bargaining process with an employer that’s shown serious financial shortcomings.

Illinois is the most financially unstable state in the nation, according to a recent report by U.S. News and World Report. The state’s public pension debt, publicly stated at $130 billion, is estimated to be as high as $250 billion by credit ratings agency Moody’s Investors Services, which puts the state just above speculative, or junk, grade.

AFSCME workers are some of the highest paid state workers in the nation, with an average pay of more than $63,000, not counting benefits. Illinois’ median wage is just under $32,000.

Although Rauner and the union seem to be at the very definition of impasse, the union insists that they are still negotiating in good faith with the governor, who is seeking a state Supreme Court ruling that would allow him to impose his last, final offer on the union.

An administrative law judge said it seems like AFSCME is slow-walking the negotiations.

“The [u]nion seemed as interested in what was happening away from the table as it was what was occurring at the table,” Sarah Kerley said.

The appellate court must now instruct the Illinois Labor Relations Board to decide on how it will reconcile the ruling, which is expected later this year.