CHICAGO (AP) — A state labor board dealt a blow to Illinois Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner on Thursday, denying his administration's unusual request to circumvent a legal recommendation and expedite deciding whether negotiations with the state's largest public employees union have stalled.
The unanimous vote by the Illinois Labor Relations Board, whose members are appointed by the governor, left the high-stakes case in the hands of an administrative law judge who's already held hearings and will issue a recommendation to the board.
Since contract talks with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31 broke off in January, the central question has been determining whether both sides are at an "impasse." The designation intensifies tactics both sides can use. Rauner, who's railed against union influence in Illinois since taking office last year, would be able to impose his own terms on roughly 36,000 state workers, while the union would consider whether to accept the terms or go on strike.
"The Illinois Labor Relations Board has never dealt with a case of greater impact," board chairman John Hartnett said Thursday.
Rauner's attorneys had argued that having the board step in right away would speed things up and save the state money. But the board's general counsel, Kathryn Zeledon Nelson, was doubtful, calling the Rauner request an "unnecessary deviation" from the usual process. She said legal precedent was sparse, and there was the potential for appeals in court.
For weeks, an administrative law judge has held intensive hearings covering complex legal arguments and allegations of unfair labor practices issued by both sides. The judge, Sarah Kerley, told the board 25 days of proceedings amounted to more than 5,200 pages of transcripts, roughly 20 binders of documents and hundreds of pages of her own notes. Both sides have to still submit final briefs next week and then she'll issue a recommendation. The final product could go before the board by November.
Nelson said board members would have to take the time to wade through all the documents themselves and potentially hold more hearings. Board members also questioned if it'd cost more.
"Efforts to expedite may have the opposite effect," Nelson said.
The contract issues include pay raises and how much state workers contribute for health plans. AFSCME wants pay increases while Rauner wants a merit pay system. But other issues, including privatization, have been raised.
The proceedings have only fueled the bitter relationship between Rauner and public employee unions. After Rauner vetoed a bill that would let an arbitrator settle state employee wages and working conditions if talks stalled, thousands of union members rallied in front of the state Capitol in May.
Union officials said Thursday they were encouraged by the decision and renewed their call to get back to the bargaining table.
"We also know that in essence the Rauner administration has wasted the past six months when we could have been in negotiations," said AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall.
Rauner's general counsel Jason Barclay, who accused the union of "reprehensible attacks" against the governor-appointed board, said he was "disappointed" by the decision.
"We voluntarily agreed to these impasse proceedings with AFSCME and will continue to respect and follow the Labor Board's decisions throughout," he said in a statement.
Follow Sophia Tareen at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen.