Judge puts state layoffs on hold

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By Rich Bauer, Managing Editor

Just two days before Gov. Pat Quinn’s plan to layoff more than 2,600 state employees – including 127 at Vandalia Correctional Center – was to kick in, a Southern Illinois judge put that plan on hold.

Judge Todd Lambert issues in Johnson County Circuit Court on Monday a preliminary injunction that provides more time for the governor and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the union representing the majority of Illinois Department of Corrections employees, for bargaining on three AFSCME grievances.

One day after Lambert issued his ruling, the two parties sat down together in Springfield for the first of many bargaining sessions.

In its lawsuit, AFSCME claimed:

• That the state wants to move forward with layoffs before it has completed bargaining with the union over the impact of that action.

• That the layoffs pose a health and safety risk to certain union members, particularly those who work in prisons that are “already desperately short of staff.

• That the state is employing private contractors and subcontractors to do bargaining-union work, in violation of the union contract.

“It’s very good news,” Russ Stunkel, president of AFSCME Local 993, said about the judge’s ruling.

“We didn’t want our day in court on Monday; we just wanted the right to be heard through arbitration,” he said. “We wanted (the right) to prove that they (the state) were in violation of our contract, and the judge agreed with us.

“The big question now is, how long does that (injunction) last?” Stunkel said, though it appears that attempts to reach accord will spill over into 2010.

Bargaining sessions are one of three elements in resolution of the matter, he said. “We started bargaining (on Tuesday) the flaws of the procedures that have taken place.”

A second element for the two parties is agreeing on a judge – likely one from another state, Stunkel said – who will preside over arbitrations, and the third is the actual arbitration.

“Even expedited arbitration is expected to run into next year,” Stunkel said.

One of the main issues, he said, is the terminology being used by the state.

“They’ve called it a layoff, but it’s really restructuring,” Stunkel said. “They talk about moving employees from this prison to Marion, to reduce overtime, but that would be creating more overtime here in Vandalia.

“It’s merely a shell game,” he said. “They’re just shifting employees and inmates.”

Vandalia Correctional Center currently houses 1,150 inmates, 750 at the main facility and 400 at the work camp. The Illinois Department of Corrections has closed down three of the 12 dorms at the main facility, Stunkel said.

Of the 323 people now working at VCC, about 220 are security personnel.

Stunkel said IDOC Director Michael P. Randle admitted local union officials during a visit to VCC that the agency is losing 50 officers a month through attrition alone.

That being said, Stunkel said, “If DOC does nothing (as far as layoffs), the probltem will solve itself.

“But the bottom line is, Illinois citizens have to ask themselves such things as, What is a crime?, Who goes to prison? and Is there a need for minimum-security prisons?”

The state’s plan to release some inmates prior to their scheduled release date, Stunkel said, does not mean that the overall number of inmates in state prisons will decrease.

“Even if they release some of the inmates, we still have people (currently housed in Cook County Jail) who are waiting to come into the system, and we constantly have more people being sent to prison,” he said.

“The early-release plan only works on paper,” Stunkel said.

One of the things that the judge’s injunction does is give AFSCME representatives “more time to stick together and speak to our legislators” about not only the planned layoffs of state employees, but also about the overall fiscal condition of the state.

“We want to talk to them about finding solutions,” Stunkel said. “It’s irresponsible let any state services get in this bad of shape.”

As AFSCME continues its fight to prevent the layoffs, Vandalia Mayor Rick Gottman said he still committed to do whatever he can to do the same.

“I’m happy that the judge saw fit to rule in favor of the union, to postpone the layoffs until after everything has been worked through,” Gottman said on Tuesday.

“This gives the governor and the union a chance to really look at this issue.”

The mayor said he believes that his role can be educating Quinn on the full impact of any layoffs on the community.

“I don’t feel that he has really looked at the impact of either the layoffs or the early release of prisoners. There are a lot of issues there,” Gottman said.

On the early-release plan, Gottman said, “Once a court decides that someone should be sent to the Department of Corrections, those individuals should be serving the entire sentence set by a judge.

“Part of that sentence includes rehabilitating these individuals and getting them ready for release back into society, and by releasing them early, the state is not let the system do its job,” he said.

Gottman said that Quinn and Randle also need to understand all that they have in Vandalia.

“Vandalia could be a self-supporting prison (with farming, dairy and meat-processing operations), and it could be the only self-supporting green institution, with the 1,500 acres of land that the state has here,” he said.

Gottman also wants to make sure that the governor knows that reducing the inmate population at VCC will have a significant impact on the city’s financial condition, because it lowers the city’s census figures.

“You take away the inmates and that drives down the amount of state and federal tax dollars coming into our community,” he said.

Like Stunkel, Gottman believes that Quinn and the legislators need to look at the state’s overall financial picture, not just layoffs.

“This deficit did not occur overnight, and it will not be solved overnight,” Gottman said.

“I feel that there are ways to address this. They need to look at the revenues that they have today and the number of new programs that have been added in recent years.”

The mayor said he would talk to the governor every chance he gets. He had the chance while attending the Illinois Municipal League convention last week in Chicago.

“I stopped him when he was on his way up to the podium to speak, then I waited outside by his car after the speech,” Gottman said.

“He told me that he would work with us on this process,” the mayor said, “and I will continue working to see that he does. I will stay in this fight until the end.”