Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Tuesday June 10th, 2014, 5:25pm

Cook County Employees Hit The Picket Line To Demand 'Fair' Contract (VIDEO)

Dozens of frontline employees at the Cook County Criminal Courts Building in Chicago hit the picket lines during their lunch break Tuesday, demanding that county officials shore up ongoing negotiations and sign a 'fair' contract with their union, AFSCME Council 31.

The protest outside of the criminal courthouse at 26th St. and California Ave. was one of 14 worksite pickets held by Cook County workers today to call for a new contract that includes fair wages and affordable health insurance. Demonstrations also took place at suburban Cook County courthouses as well as the Juvenile Court Building and the John H. Stroger, Jr. Hospital of Cook County in Chicago, among other locations.

"We want what everybody else wants. We want fair wages, affordable health care and we want respect on the job," said Steve Ramsey, 35, an investigator with the Office of the Cook County Public Defender. "This administration has failed to come to the table and offer any of that to us."

Contract negotiations between AFSCME and Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's administration have been underway for the past 18 months. Over the past year and a half, some 4,500 frontline county employees represented by AFSCME have been working under the terms of their old union contract, which was slated to expire in December of 2012.

AFSCME represents Cook County public defenders and investigators, probation officers, sheriff’s police, jail sergeants and lieutenants. The union also covers staff in the health and hospital system as well as in the offices of the assessor, chief judge, medical examiner, public guardian and state’s attorney.

Cook County workers represented by AFSCME have not seen a pay increase since June of 2012. As part of the current contract negotiations, the Preckwinkle administration has not offered a retroactive pay increase for those employees, said AFSCME spokesman Anders Lindall. A retroactive pay increase, he says, would help workers "catch up with the rising costs" over the past two years for necessities such as food and gas.

Workers are not asking for "ridiculous wage increases," added Jim Dunaway, 49, a Cook County probation officer. "We're asking for something fair."

"We believe that we should be entitled to a wage increase that begins from the expiration of our old contract to make up all of those costs we've been paying in the meantime," he said. "For somebody like President Preckwinkle, whose collecting three pensions, who has made her life public service, you would think we would ... get the respect we deserve as her employees in Cook County."

Preckwinkle is a former Chicago alderman and high school history teacher.

"If she (were) to get a grade right now, it would be a big, fat, red 'F' plus in our book," Ramsey said. "We've done everything we could do as Cook County employees to be fiscally responsible to her budgets. We gave 10 furlough days" in 2011.

"The least they can do is come to us and negotiate a fair, decent contract," he stressed.

Administration officials have offered a "modest" future wage increase for workers, Lindall said. However, that future bump in pay is offset by the administration's proposal to hike employee health insurance costs.

"It's an effective pay cut," he stressed.

Mark Douglass, an assistant Cook County public defender, said the county's proposal includes a freeze on wage increases for the first two years of the contract. The administration, Douglass said, is proposing a 4.5 percent wage hike for the last two years of the four-year contract. Meanwhile, the administration wants to increase worker health care costs by 6 percent, said Douglass, who is also vice president and chief steward of the Cook County Public Defenders Association, AFSCME Local 3315. Essentially, an AFSCME-represented Cook County worker would see a 1.5 percent net loss in pay under the administration's proposal, Douglass said.

Here is more from Douglass, Dunaway and scenes from today's protest outside of the Cook County Criminal Courts Building:

"What they've offered us, it will cost us to go backwards," added Presita West, 38, president of the Cook County Public Defenders Association, AFSCME Local 3315. "It wouldn't allow us, the employees who make the county work, to have a fair, livable wage ... to support our families."

Ramsey stressed that most frontline Cook County employees simply cannot afford a pay cut.

"We don't make a lot of money," he said. 

He went on to say that the administration needs to reach a fair contract with the union now, explaining that the 18 months of negotiations have been "a distraction to us trying to do our jobs."

In a statement to Progress Illinois, Karen Vaughan, spokeswoman for the Office of the Cook County Board President, said she is "not able to comment on the specifics of ongoing negotiations, but President Preckwinkle is committed to continuing to work with AFSCME to develop a contract that is fair to our employees and protects our taxpayers."

A contract negotiation session between AFSCME and the administration is schedule for tomorrow morning in Chicago, Douglass said. All the locals represented by AFSCME Council 31 will be at the meeting, he said, adding that union officials and workers are "ready to sit down with the county and get a fair contract with fair wages without cuts to our health care benefits."

West, who wants the administration to take the workers' "negotiations seriously," hopes today's protests will "spur progress" at the bargaining table tomorrow.

"We are the frontline workers of the county," she said. "We deserve to have a fair contract."

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