Every Chicago Labor Contract Has Expired: Your Guide To The Negotiations

Chicago taxpayers should understand how the city will negotiate new labor contracts with 91 percent of its workforce.

<p>Sol Lieberman / Better Government Association</p>

Over the next two years the City of Chicago will negotiate new contracts with all of its labor unions. These contracts — 44 separate collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) — are critical to how the city operates, as they govern the administration's relationship, salary, benefits, and work rules for nearly 91% of its workforce.

The city's negotiations have traditionally been closed to the public, taxpayers do not know what is in the contracts until negotiations are complete, and they are finalized and presented to the City Council for approval.

While politicians should always be working in the interest of taxpayers and residents, there may be other incentives at play in CBA negotiations. It is difficult for the public to judge what's going on behind closed doors. But these negotiations govern in significant part how the city spends taxpayer money and how it provides critical services.

The BGA encourages the public to prepare for what's coming by understanding what's in the current CBAs, how the negotiation process works, and how to stay engaged in the process and make sure your priorities are heard. We also suggest ways the administration and unions, as well as City Council, might make the process more transparent and accountable.

Who CBAs cover

The city’s 44 CBAs cover about 30,807 (full time equivalent) positions.

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Sworn officers — represented by separate contracts for police officers, captains, lieutenants, and sergeants — make up by far the largest portion of union labor as well as the largest portion of city employees as a whole. Police are followed by fire department employees, civilian employees managed by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and employees of 34 different trade unions.

According to the city's website, the majority of the 34 CBAs negotiated with the Coalition of Unionized Public Employees (COUPE) took effect in 2007, before the Great Recession hit and just days after Apple released its first iPhone. Three of these contracts — those with Plasterers Local 5, Roofers Local 11, and Caulker Local 52 — cover employees that are no longer even budgeted for or employed by the city and will likely not be renegotiated. The unusually long length of the agreements helped former Mayor Richard Daley bring a promise of labor stability to the city's bid for the 2016 Olympics. While the bid ultimately failed, the contracts remained. Their renegotiation presents a chance for the city and labor to finally bring benefits, rules, and expectations a decade up to speed.

What's in the current contracts

General operations

In May 2017, the city’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a review of the CBAs with an eye toward the most efficient use of the city’s resources. The review provided a comparison of wage increases included in the life of the city’s CBAs and compared it to the increase in the local Consumer Price Index during the same period. The tradesmen, COUPE contracts, which are ten years old, were way out of sync, 17.4 percent above normal levels of growth.

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OIG suggested that in the coming negotiations city managers consider tying wage increases to CPI. The report also suggests that stakeholders pay close attention to:

  • Long-term contracts: Union contracts typically last three to five years. Even a five-year contract can put the city out of sync with modern practices in service delivery and employee benefits.
  • Reopener provisions: Reopeners are clauses that allow a portion or all of a contract to be renegotiated and can be included according to a set schedule. For example, salary levels might be individually scheduled for renegotiation in year three of a five-year contract. Or a provision might call for a ten-year contract to reopen if there is a recession, or conversely if there is a higher than anticipated level of economic growth.

In addition, some of the 2007 tradesmen contracts formalized the use of the prevailing wage — the wage that laborers in the private sector get paid. Even in 2007, Tom Villanova, president of the Chicago and Cook County Building and Construction Trades Council, recognized, "Chicago is the only large city left in which building trades employees get the prevailing wage." The IG's office suggested that stakeholders consider moving away from this practice.

Among other things the OIG review also suggests:

  • Reforming the health benefit system with increased premiums, multiple tiers for coverage, and higher contributions for employees who smoke
  • Tying allowances for uniform maintenance and other costs to actual need
  • Giving the city more flexibility to contract out for labor, for example for short-term staffing, to avoid excessive overtime, or for “operationally and fiscally optimal outcomes”

Police accountability

The current police CBAs began in 2012, long before the release of the Laquan McDonald video, the Police Accountability Task Force, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation. Problems in the operations of the Chicago Police Department (CPD) have therefore been brought to light, a number of which are codified in the police contracts. The Coalition for Police Contracts Accountability, of which the BGA's policy team is a member, identified 14 key concerns that apply to one or more of the agreements with sworn officers. These include provisions that require the destruction of disciplinary records after five years, even though they are public records. Destroying them, the DOJ noted, "deprives CPD of important discipline and personnel documentation that will assist in monitoring historical patterns of misconduct."

How the city's CBA process works

The city's law department typically carries out a traditional format of contract negotiations on behalf of the mayor. At the negotiation stage, the only official parties at the negotiating table are the administration and the union, with union membership often invited to attend meetings. After the city and unions, and their membership, agree, or after arbitration if they can't agree, the final contract is ratified by the City Council. Since the negotiations are generally closed and driven by the mayor, the aldermen and taxpayers may not know what is in the contract until it is near the final stages.

Particularly for contracts facing high-profile issues, such as the police contracts, negotiations may end up in arbitration where, according to Illinois law, the arbitrator should consider the city's financial condition. Arbitration can extend an already sluggish process even further. In the current case, the finalization of some CBAs could conceivably be pushed past the 2019 election - perhaps not a bad scenario for incumbent officials hoping for a smooth reelection. Once they are finalized, agreements are often retroactively applied to the period covering negotiation, even if that process lasted for years.

(For more on collective bargaining in the public sector see the Government Finance Officers Association's contract negotiation guide.)

How the negotiation process can improve

While confidentiality is certainly a common feature of contract negotiations in general, the closed-door nature of the city’s negotiations leaves out the public as a critical stakeholder unique to the government sector. State law exempts negotiations from the Open Meetings Act. But, short of making the full bargaining process public, BGA has identified options the city and unions can explore in order to bring more transparency and accountability to the process now and in future negotiations:

  • Encouraging communities to officially weigh in on the issues to be addressed in negotiation
  • Sharing key documents such as initial bargaining positions and last-best-offer proposals
  • Exploring alternative forms of negotiation like principles-based or interest-based negotiation models

The City Council also can improve its oversight of the negotiating process by making its priorities clear before and during negotiations. For example, 21 aldermen made their priorities for the police contracts clear by sponsoring a resolution endorsing the Coalition for Police Contracts Accountability reforms in the new police contracts. In the future, aldermen could also plan to hold hearings on the CBAs as they are expiring to identify important areas for consideration, instead of waiting until after the negotiations have concluded to publicly consider the contracts. Finally, the City Council’s Office of Financial Analysis might review each CBA and the supporting documentation on behalf of the aldermen to inform their vote.

How the public can engage in the current process

Even in the current negotiation process individuals in the public can make sure they have their say:

  1. Stay informed.

    Read the current agreements. Read the IG’s report. Chances are you have had experience as an employee and/or employer and can bring that expertise to bear.

  2. Talk to your alderman.

    If you have concerns about the benefits or lack of benefits provided to covered employees, let your alderman know. Though City Council’s role comes at the end, it is an important part of the negotiation process. Let your representative know what your priorities are.

  3. Talk to your union representative.

    If you are a covered city employee, make sure you stay updated on the progress of your union’s negotiations with updates from your representatives, or by attending the negotiations - ask your leaders, often union members are invited to attend and observe negotiations.

  4. Demand an update on the contract negotiation process before the 2019 election.

    In order to be fully transparent, the city and Unions should seek to reach resolutions before the 2019 election. While the negotiation process can and will take time, as the election approaches, you deserve know what the status of the CBAs are, and if your priorities are represented.

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