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Labor unrest rising? Not really: Work stoppages way down since 1980s

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Updated: November 4, 2012 6:10AM

SPRINGFIELD — A social studies teacher in Chicago. A cellist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. A Caterpillar machinist in Joliet.

What do these people who span such a broad economic and social spectrum all have in common?

They all have been on strike during the past few months when Chicago and the suburbs have seen one roiling, high-profile work stoppage after another — a list that also includes strikes by Lake Forest and Evergreen Park teachers and lockouts of National Football League referees and National Hockey League players.

But is all of the labor strife a sign that unions are emboldened and more strike-prone in Chicago and across Illinois?

In a word, no.

While there have been 15 work stoppages across the state this year, the six strikes or lockouts recorded in Illinois during all of last year represents a low-water mark in 28 years of record-keeping by the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, a federal agency that tracks strikes and lockouts.

“From the outside, it might appear to be the dawn of a new workers proletariat revolution,” said Bob Bruno, a University of Illinois at Chicago professor who heads the school’s Labor Education Program. “But in fact, it’s much more the case where you have a series of disputes that have reached a certain point, and it’s more coincidental than it is some sort of common inspiration or vision that’s driving things and that you can link together.”

The trend lines have shown a steady decline in strikes or work lockouts since 1984.

The most work stoppages since then occurred in 1986, when there were 69, led by a strike against Illinois Road Builders that idled 8,000 construction workers in the Chicago area.

Still, union leaders believe this year’s uptick in work stoppages embodies the fact that workers are reaching a tipping point after a decade of stagnant wages and rising health-care costs passed along to them by employers, who somehow have managed to stay in the black.

“I do think the labor movement is fired up and fighting back. We’ve had enough,” Michael Carrigan, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

“We’re being asked to the negotiating tables and not receiving raises and being asked to give concessions. But you look around and see corporations enjoying record profits, and management [pay] increases are happening,” he said.

That dynamic clearly was at play with the 15-week walkout by 780 workers at Caterpillar’s hydraulic parts plant in Joliet that ended last month, though that job action widely was perceived as a loss for the International Association of Machinists.

Despite Caterpillar posting record profits, the company demanded and won from workers a six-year pay freeze for two-thirds of its employees at the Joliet factory. The union also accepted a pension freeze for most of its workers and higher health-insurance costs.

The union’s only victory came in the form of a $3,100 ratification bonus, which amounted to an increase from the company’s original $1,000 offering.

“The workers, I think, are just kind of fed up with all the cuts and new policies disguised as cuts,” said Elizabeth Aschack, an economist with the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Work Stoppages Program.

“Over the past 10 years, [employers] really have cut wages and pension benefits, and the workers have been taking it and not really striking. But now, lately, you’re seeing some strikes over not just wage cuts, but the erosion of benefits, too.”

In contrast to the Joliet Caterpillar workers, the Chicago Teachers Union and its president Karen Lewis scored a big win with the strike waged against the Chicago Public Schools, the first union walk-out in 25 years in the city’s schools and a job action that shut down classrooms for 350,000 students for seven days.

In a fight that drew national headlines and even penetrated the presidential race, the union overcame legislation passed last spring in Springfield that raised the strike-authorization threshold to what some viewed as an unattainable level — 75 percent.

Getting 90 percent of its members to authorize a strike, the union wound up forcing concessions from Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration on teacher evaluations and rehiring and step-and-lane salary increases for seniority and additional education. The three-year deal will wind up costing the CPS an additional $74 million annually.

In another job action that drew headlines, the Chicago Federation of Musicians struck over pay and health-care, causing the cancellation last month of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s second subscription concert.

The dispute ended when the union and CSO Association board of trustees agreed on a deal that increased pay by 4.5 percent over three years and lessened the threatened bite of rising health care benefits on musicians.

Elsewhere, labor tensions have been on edge for months in state government, where the largest public employee union, AFSCME Council 31, booed Gov. Pat Quinn off a stage last month and has hounded his every turn since then to protest his plans to close state facilities, lay off thousands of state workers and reel in government pensions.

Antagonizing things farther, AFSCME and the state have hit a wall in negotiations on a new contract to replace the one that expired last June. Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rich Miller, in his Capitol Fax blog, reported last week about an email AFSCME circulated to its members warning that a fair contract won’t be reached with the Quinn administration without “direct action at the worksite and in the community.”

Even if it’s too early to say strikes are making a resurgence in Illinois akin to their 1980s heyday, Bruno said it’s possible the labor movement, after years of making concessions that have left workers falling farther and farther behind, is on the verge of making a comeback.

“There’s something in the wind,” the UIC labor professor said. “There’s resistance, grievance and angst.”

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