For the first time in the 40 years of state-employee collective bargaining, one of the state's top unions has voted to authorize a possible strike.
Last Thursday, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees announced in a news release that 81 percent of its voting members voted "yes" to give the union's bargaining committee the authority to call a strike in the long-time contract battle with Gov. Bruce Rauner's administration.
"We have come to this juncture for one reason only: the refusal of Governor Rauner to negotiate with our union," said AFSCME Council 31 Executive Director Roberta Lynch in the release.
AFSCME represents about 38,000 state workers, but the union did not release how many actually voted.
"We knew our members were upset with the fact that Governor Rauner has left the bargaining table and refused to come back," said AFSCME Council 31 staff representative Ty Peterson. "This vote shows the overwhelming frustration with the administration to not present a fair wage and benefit package."
The governor's general counsel, Dennis Murashko, blasted the union in a statement distributed to media shortly after the voting results were announced.
"AFSCME leaders would rather strike than work 40 hours a week before earning overtime," Murashko said. "They want to earn overtime after working just 37.5 hours per week. AFSCME leaders would rather strike than allow volunteers like Boy Scout troops to lend a helping hand inside government.
"They want to ban the use of volunteers. AFSCME leaders would rather strike than allow state employees to be paid based on merit. They want to stick to paying people based on seniority, regardless of whether they're doing a good job."
Voting took place from Jan. 30 through Feb. 19. Local voting in Chester took place on Jan. 30, Feb. 1 and Feb. 3.
"At this present time, it's tough to tell," Peterson said, when asked what the local results were. "We hope to dissect the vote and maybe determine (this) week what the local percentage was."
The strike could affect several social services, including the Chester Mental Health Center.
Correctional officers at Menard Correctional Center are unable to strike due to the state's Private Correctional Facility Moratorium Act, but there are some staff members who don't fall under the "security positions" label.
Peterson said close to 400 CMHC employees took part in the vote and that the facility has around 250 residents.
"The next step for Local 424 is we're going to have a meeting with the negotiating team," said Randy Clover, CMHC Local 424 president. "Our hopes are the governor will come back to the table. We're still willing to negotiate."
Under Illinois law, AFSCME is required to give at least five days' notice of intent to strike. Clover told the newspaper that mental health workers have to give 10 days' notice.
"I don't think anybody in this area wants to strike," Clover said. "It would be devastating to everybody in this community with two state facilities."
Clover noted that area restaurants, businesses and public aid offices could also be affected by a strike.
"Even stores like Walmart in Chester will suffer because where will people get their money to buy non every-day items?" Clover asked.
Peterson was asked what was next for AFSCME.
"We'll take this back to the bargaining committee, discuss the options and what we need to do," he said. "It doesn't mean we will strike. Hopefully, this administration has a change of heart and is willing to come back to the table."
Peterson, as a staff representative for Council 31, was asked what his role would be in the process.
"I'll be the overseer for all of it in Southern Illinois as far as the ones I work with," he said. "The logistics of a strike have not been finalized by no means.
"Those will be things in the next few weeks we'll be deciding on."