SPRINGFIELD (AP) — The emerging threat of at least 30,000 Illinois state employees striking might seem extreme, but union leaders say they're seriously considering the prospect as contract talks have stalemated amid an overall state government financial picture that is equally extreme.
Illinois remains mired in a fiscal quagmire that includes a crushing $96 billion deficit in public-worker pension systems and a festering $9 billion backlog of unpaid bills to service providers.
That's the backdrop for ongoing negotiations between Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and the state's largest union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which often finds itself on the defensive at a time when organized labor across the country has suffered losses. AFSCME has futilely fought against facility closures, appealed to the courts to enforce raises promised in 2011 and has little to show for more than a year of contract talks to replace one that expired eight months ago.
Negotiators are expected to sit for another round of talks this week. But if progress continues to elude them, AFSCME leaders may decide it's time to "call the question" and ask members to vote on authorizing a work stoppage, executive director Henry Bayer says. Union leaders raised the prospect of a strike in a letter to members last week.
"People are getting to the point where they're so angry and so frustrated that they think, what's the use of sitting down with these folks every two or three weeks if nothing's going to change?" Bayer said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Since the 1973 advent of collective bargaining in Illinois, there's never been a state employee strike, Bayer said.
"But we've never had an employer that's been so obstinate and made such extreme demands on our members as this one," he added.