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By Anna Lothson
The atmosphere was heated outside Oak Park Village Hall Saturday and Monday — literally and figuratively
Village employees and representatives of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 flanked the area for the two-day only strike after multiple failed attempts to reach compromises between the union group and Oak Park management. The seven months of negotiations boiled down to two talking points regarding changes in overtime pay and merit-based pay increases.
A federal mediator has been working with both sides, but on June 29 the union gave notice that 85 percent of SEIU employees who work for the village voted to authorize the brief strike. This was the first ever Oak Park village employee strike, according to union representatives, but the group is open to additional strike days if needed.
Dozens of employees and members of their families made their thoughts heard starting Saturday morning and again on Monday when the strike resumed. The temperatures soared toward 100 Saturday and settled to around 85 early Monday, but that didn't calm the strikers.
"What do we want? A contract." a large group chanted as they made a lap around village hall grounds at Madison Street and Lombard Avenue on Monday. "When do we want it? Now."
Adam Rosen, communications director for the union, said some SEIU union workers crossed the picket line; some employees, he said, didn't show up to picket for fear of retaliation by their supervisor. Rosen also said some who voted in favor of the strike did not show up at all.
David Powers, Oak Park's communication director, said based on information collected by management, 27 of the 67 strike-eligible employees participated in the strike. He said 19 of the 67 were at work, and the remaining employees were sick or had pre-planned vacation time.
Powers said that of the 76-person union membership that voted to authorize a strike, 43 votes were cast in favor of and 8 voted against. 25 members did not vote.
Ivory Pearson, a 17-year-village employee and parking enforcement officer, said he's an example of why merit-based pay increases don't work. Pearson said a person recently hired in the same position and who would be trained by Pearson, makes only $700 less annually than he does.
"If it worked we wouldn't be here," he said. "The standards are set so high."
Pearson was among his colleagues and union representatives who believe the system in place does not allow for realistic measures to qualify for the merit-based pay increases.
Claims of favoritism and empty promises of merit-based increases without actually budgeting for the possible increases were other sentiments shared by village employees.
"It's so unfair" Mary Joe Lopez, a senior administrative clerk in parking services said. "It's so biased – it's used for discipline."
Village officials have said that if a contract had been in place over the past year that some 65 percent of the striking employees would have been eligible for merit increases.
Rosen said he also refutes the suggestion that a merit-based pay increase is the norm among local governments, when he said only one other municipality of the 131 groups SEIU represent includes such a program.
According to SEIU, Oak Park officials want to offer a 1-percent wage increase plus a 1-percent merit increase. However, the union contends, the village wants to take away the ability for the union employees to file grievances when merit increases are decided.
Essentially, Rosen said, if the village chooses not to grant a merit raise to a certain employee, there would be no tool for that employee to file a complaint against the village.
"The village manager added a half-percent to the [proposed] merit pay increase," Rosen said. "But based on previous experience, we know that the majority of our employees have never seen a merit increase."
Rosen said the union asked for an additional half-percent increase in base wages, but that was declined by the village. He said the village also wants to offer merit-based increases without retroactivity, making it even harder to file grievances if an employee doesn't qualify for a raise under the evaluation process.
The merit-based increase is set on a point system and Rosen said the union would like to see more flexibility in the scale to determine what type of raise employees receive. For example, he said, on the four-point system, he would like to see those who hit a three or above receive the full merit increase.
"This is definitely a case of the 1 percent versus the 99 percent," Rosen said.
The two percent increase the union seeks amounts to approximately $75,000 a year across all the employees, according to Rosen, which the group thinks is minuscule compared to the amount the village budgets for streetscape and other village projects every year. The group claims it is asking far less than the cost of living increase.
"We are not asking for the world. We are asking for a fair contract," Lopez, another 17-year-village employee said. Lopez claims she once was told she was docked in her evaluation because she filed a grievance. "We work hard, we serve the public. What did we do to be disrespected?"
The 77 union employees include 29 unique job classifications and the staff members work in many village departments, including building property and standards, community planning, housing programs, finance, information technology, parking and mobility services, police (limited to civilian positions including parking enforcement), public health, public works (limited to clerical, engineering and forestry positions), and the village clerk's office.
The other unresolved issue, according to the union, is that employees will lose overtime pay if sick, holiday or vacation days are used in the same week.
Rosen said employees have not been eligible for merit-based pay increases since the contract expired at the end of 2010. There have been 15 negotiating sessions since May 11.
Interim Village Manager Cara Pavlicek provided an update about the collective bargaining sessions at a recent village board meeting. Both sides say they embrace the idea of merit increases, but have been unable to agree on the best method for providing them.
"We believe in consistency amongst our workforce in the manner in which we compensate them," she said. "Over 65 percent of their membership would have received a merit-based increase. But for our lack of negotiating ability [to] date, that compensation has not been there for those employees."
Powers said that if a compromise could have been reached, that percentage would have gotten about a 2.5 percent merit-based increased based on the last round of evaluations. He emphasized that non-union village hall employees who saw a recent 2 percent pay increase got the raise for the first time in about three-and-a-half years because of a wage freeze.
Rosen said when the union asked village officials which employees were part of the 65 percent, the village was vague and did not provide specific names.
Overall, there are nine collective bargaining units that represent around 275 employees and six unions in the village.
Rosen said the federal negotiator was scheduled to meet with the union representatives Tuesday to see if further discussions can achieve a solution. Another strike, however, isn't out of the picture if village management doesn't agree to changes in the new contract.
"This is the only way we can be heard," Lopez said. "We can't be heard inside."