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Strike’s end means ‘happy day’ in Will County

Union workers picket on a cold and blustery Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, in front of the county jail as a strike by Will County government employees, who belong to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 1028, enters its second week. | Cindy Cain~Sun-Times Media.

Union workers picket on a cold and blustery Monday, Nov. 25, 2013, in front of the county jail as a strike by Will County government employees, who belong to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees Local 1028, enters its second week. | Cindy Cain~Sun-Times Media.

Will County Board Speaker Herb Brooks Jr. said Wednesday that “it’s a happy day in Will County” now that county and union negotiators have a tentative contract and a 16-day strike has ended.

And while neither side in the labor dispute got everything it wanted, “it’s time to get county services running again,” Brooks, D-Joliet, said.

The tentative agreement was reached at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday after a 12-hour negotiating session. Union members voted on the tentative pact on Thursday. The county board will consider it Dec. 19.

As for hard feelings on either side going forward, Brooks, who’s a minister at a Joliet church, said he thinks both sides can continue to work together.

“I would hope we could get past this,” he said of the strike, the first by Will County government workers since the mid-1970s.

Most county offices stayed open during the strike, which involved about 700 of 1,000 members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 1028. But services slowed down or were cut back in some areas, especially court functions, according to Circuit Court Chief Judge Richard Schoenstedt.

“We just had to make due,” he said.

Schoenstedt said the employees who were not on strike worked very hard to keep the courthouse open. And he said he knows that those who struck suffered, too, because they weren’t getting paid and didn’t have access to health insurance benefits.

“Whatever got us to this point, I’m just glad that it’s over,” he said.

County board member Jim Moustis, who chairs the board’s Republican caucus, said both sides worked diligently to agree on new contracts to replace the seven Local 1028 pacts that expired on Nov. 30, 2012.

“Unfortunately, it took longer than we like and it resulted in a work stoppage,” he said. “... I’m glad our employees are back to work for the public’s sake and for the workers’ families.”

Both sides had to give a little at the final overnight bargaining session, Moustis, R-Frankfort Square, said.

“You know you have a fair deal when no one side is totally happy,” he said. “These situations are always difficult when you try to balance what’s fair for employees with the resources you have.”

Moustis said he thinks the county’s 2014 budget can absorb the cost-of-living raises given to workers without leading to layoffs, which some county officials tossed out as a possibility during negotiations.

“I don’t anticipate layoffs, but I do anticipate over time a little bit of a workforce reduction,” he said.

Moustis said the county could reduce its workforce by about 100 through attrition.

Neither side released details of the tentative agreement, pending the votes to approve it. But the county’s last known offer involved a 4.5 percent cost-of-living raise phased in over the next three years — on top of 2.5 percent “step” increases that workers get for advancing on the salary scale through seniority.

In exchange, the county wanted to switch workers to a new system of paying for health insurance. Instead of paying 1 percent of salary for individual coverage and 2 percent for family coverage, workers would pay a percentage of the insurance premium.

Union officials were concerned that the bigger insurance payments would eat up raises and hurt lower-paid county workers. But county officials contended that the county cannot continue to absorb rising medical insurance costs and that the union members were still paying far less than workers in the private sector and county workers in similar counties.

Local 1028 has seven contracts with the county that cover 1,200 of the county’s 2,300 union and non-union employees. For the past 16 months, the bulk of negotiations centered on the county executive’s contract, which covers about 600 workers. Typically, what’s negotiated for that group is applied by the county to the other union workers as well as non-union workers.

County Executive Larry Walsh, who was criticized by union officials prior to the strike for not being involved enough in negotiations, said through a spokesperson that he would not comment on the apparent settlement until the union vote was complete.

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