Illinois Public Media News
Labor unrest is affecting higher education, including University of Illinois campuses in Urbana and Chicago
Members of one UIUC union rallied Thursday outside a residence hall just as freshmen are moving in for their first semester. Ricky Baldwin is an organizer for the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 1000 employees. He claims that administrative cost increases are taking place while union members have seen their pay stagnate.
"The money that the University is spending on all kinds of things at the top shows us that the university does have money," said Baldwin "It just doesn't want to spend it on the basic operations -- the students, the workers, the instruction at the university."
The SEIU and the U of I are in contract talks... but members say they are not close to striking in Urbana. That cannot be said in Chicago, where about 3000 SEIU employees are threatening a Monday walkout.
At another hall complex Thursday, U of I president Michael Hogan and chancellor Robert Easter met incoming students. During the visit, Hogan said the university faces the prospect of more budget cuts and state payment delays, making salary increases even harder to achieve.
"We've just taken another 46 million dollar reduction in our budget, so that's the subject of ongoing negotiations, and I certainly hope we can reach a settlement," Hogan said. He says it's unlikely the school will see any of its current-year funding from Springfield until next January at the earliest. He says he's been assured that all of the U of I's fiscal-2010 funds will be in their hands in the next few months.
Mahomet-Seymour teachers are going on strike, cancelling all classes and school activities until further notice.
An 11th hour meeting between the union and school district failed Wednesday night - the fourth meeting with a federal mediator. Union Co-President Joan Jordan said administrators left without responding to their latest contract proposal. She said the Mahomet Seymour Education Association's 1-year plan is essentially the first year of a 2-year proposal proposed by the district one night earlier. It includes a 3-point-1 percent average increase in the teacher salary schedule. Jordan said the district refuses to budge from a 2-year contract.
"And because they keep crying poor and saying they just don't have the money... and they have the money, but we're going to decimate all their funds, which isn't true either." said Jordan. "We gave them what they wanted, we just don't want more than one year. Because if things are so uncertain, then we need to bargain again starting in December when we know better what's coming from the state. "
Jordan said administrators plan on meeting with the union again at 6:30 Thursday evening.
Mahomet-Seymour School Board President Terry Greene said the union is putting the district's financial health at risk by asking for unreasonable raises and benefits. He said it is hard to deal with a moving target, adding that the union changed its proposal late Tuesday after it appeared a tentative deal was in place, and he said one contract proposal would mean $700,000 in deficit spending in one year.
"This board of education won't support that, and I don't think our community will support that," said Greene. "So just because we have a fund balance and cash reserve that we've worked years to build up to protect ourselves for difficult times - which we're in, doesn't mean it belongs to the MSEA. Just because we have it doesn't mean it's theirs. It belongs to the taxpayers."
The school board has scheduled a special meeting for Friday to allow the continuation of sports and other activities during a work stoppage. Mahomet-Seymour's first home football game is scheduled for a week from Friday. Administrators say this is the first teacher strike at Mahomet-Seymour schools.
It will cost an extra 2-cents a gallon to buy gas in Urbana, beginning October 1st.
The local motor fuel tax proposed by Mayor Laurel Prussing last spring was approved by the city council Monday night on a 4-to-3 vote. The tax going towards street maintenance and safety will generate $340,000 annually. An escalator of 0.4 cents will kick in each July for three years, bringing that total to about $544,000 dollars by 2013, but the gas tax will be up for review each of those years. The vote among council members mirrored that of a study session a week earlier.
Alderwoman Heather Stevenson has always opposed the plan, saying this may actually mean she buys her gas and does her shopping elsewhere.
"If I'm in Champaign, I'm going to purchase items over there that I possibly could purchase in Urbana." said Stevenson. "So I think it's not about traveling a mile to save money on gas, it's about saving money... and spending money - tax dollars - in another area."
Stevenson says the council needed to explore alternatives to the tax to pay for road improvements. Urbana resident Bob Bosshart opposed it, saying it will hurt the middle income during the recession.
Alderman Dennis Roberts supported what he calls a 'gentle tax' but admits passing any off on residents during a recession is tough.
"It'll be reviewed, and it is important to be self-sustaining and take care of your own streets as a municipality." said Roberts. "But I also realize that all taxes are a burden to people who are using them, so this is not the easiest vote."
Mayor Laurel Prussing says other towns enacting the tax hadn't seen an increase in gas prices when compared to neighboring communities. She proposed the tax last spring because she says state motor fuel tax dollars haven't increased in 20 years, while the cost of road repairs have more than doubled.
The gas tax also earned the approval of AFSCME Council 31's Michael Wilmore, who says union members from Urbana's Public Works Department work hard to make the city a safe place to live and travel.
Teachers in the Mahomet-Seymour School District could vote to go on strike on Wednesday, the day before classes are to begin.
The two sides are at an impasse after meeting twice over the weekend with a federal mediator, in meetings that latest about 12 hours total. The teacher's union currently has a strike vote scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.
The President of the Mahomet-Seymour Education Association, Joan Jordan, said while the two sides have seen agreement in more areas, teachers' primary concern is insurance. She said the school board's proposed increase is 90-percent less than what was paid in previous contracts, meaning higher premiums for its members. Jordan said that means union members making as little as $16,500 would see a loss in pay.
"They've got money. They don't want to spend it." said Jordan. "But there are real people with lives attached to this though. I just hope that they'll come back and offer us what they should have started with."
The teacher's union has rejected the district's offer for a 2-year contract with salary increases of more than 2-percent for the first year... and just over 3-percent for the second. School Board President Terry Greene called the offer 'extremely generous' considering the economic times. The union proposed a 5-percent raise in the current year and 6-percent the next. Greene said combining that with the insurance teachers are seeking, that means Mahomet Seymour would be cutting programs, laying off employees, and class sizes would 'explode' a year from now.
"The days of 5 and 6-percent salary increases, at least for the short term, are over." said Greene. "And Cadillac insurance plans for families, while it would be nice to provide that, we don't have enough money in our school district to solve that problem."
Jordan said the union hopes to meet again with the board prior to Thursday.
Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says he holds out hope the Department of Energy officials will visit Mattoon despite the community's desire to move on.
The Republican has been urging the DOE to reverse its decision since last week's announcement to make the city a storage site rather than home to a new coal-fired power plant. Johnson says Department Assistant Secretary James Markowski made a commitment to him Tuesday that Energy Secretary Steven Chu would still come to Mattoon. "He said he said he'd come here, so I can only take him at his word." said Johnson. "However, given the lack of credibity of the Department of Energy in this whole decision making process, their lack of transparency and lack of communication with me, I've come to not believe anything they would tell me. So the fact he said he would come, or at least his undersecretary said he'd come, is just about as believable as the fact he told us in April he'd keep us posted on an hour by hour basis."
Johnson has called the Department of Energy's decision an 'absolute betrayal' of lawmakers like him that have pushed for the FutureGen project for years. He says Coles Together made the right decision to reject the new FutureGen, adding that the reconfigured project involving a power plant in Western Illinois likely won't happen either. Johnson calls FutureGen 2.0 a bureaucratic effort to 'kick the can further down the road.
U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin is demanding that Mattoon officials decide by the end of the week whether they want to be part of the revised FutureGen clean-coal project.
Durbin made the demand Monday in a letter to Angela Griffin. She leads the Coles Together economic development group in Coles County. "We need to make sure that we understand exactly what FutureGen 2.0 represents," said Griffin. "We need to make sure that we've considered everthing - that we haven't eliminated something from consideration that's important. We need to consider the immediate impact, and we need to consider the long-term impact. This project as presented has several faces to it, and we need to consider what DOE's (The Department of Energy's) long-term plans are for a carbon storage system in Mattoon." But Griffin says she holds no ill will towards Senator Durbin, who she notes worked for this project and the Mattoon community for years, at a time when many others in Washington turned their backs on it.
Until last week FutureGen included a power plant to be built in Mattoon with carbon dioxide from its coal stored underground. The Department of Energy now wants to retrofit a plant across the state in Meredosia. Mattoon would store carbon dioxide from that plant. The department has said it needs to finalize revisions by Sept. 30 to use $1.1 billion in stimulus funds. Durbin says the Department of Energy needs to find a new carbon storage site if Mattoon isn't interested. Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says his request to meet with Energy Secretary Steven Chu about the changes has been turned down.
The Champaign School Board has unanimously approved a new three-year contract for nearly 500 support staff. This comes six months after negotiations began between the Champaign Educational Support Professionals union and the school district, and more than a month after the old contract expired.
The contract includes a 65 cent pay raise for teaching assistants after one year, and a 50 cent increase each year for the following two years. Board President Dave Tomlinson says teacher assistants in Champaign have traditionally made less money compared to aides in nearby school districts.
"We tried to bring them up to a comparable area over the three year period," he said, adding that teacher's aides are with students as much as teachers are during a seven hour day.
The contract also covers other positions, including custodians, maintenance personnel, and food service workers. They will see their annual salaries go up by around two-point-two percent.
Union President Mary Logsdon was congratulated by members of the school board, including Tomlinson and Superintendent Arthur Culver. Logsdon described the new contract as a victory for the union given the state's financial crisis, but she added that many of its members were not completely satisfied with the final outcome.
"You know, there are still people out there who are going to have to work two or three jobs in order to pay their bills," she said. "We're only going to get so much."
Tomlinson said he anticipates the school board cutting about two million dollars from the budget next year. Students are scheduled to return to class on August 19th.
Urbana Congressman Tim Johnson says he's 'more than upset' with the Obama administration for what he calls an absolute betrayal of what has been promised for FutureGen.
The Republican says the revamped agreement to make Mattoon a repository for underground storage of carbon emissions, rather than the home to a clean-coal burning plant, shows 'a lack of credibility' from colleagues who had support the original project the last few years. Johnson says he's hoping to set up a meeting with US Energy Secretary Steven Chu next week, with hopes he'll reconsider. "We don't know exactly what the cost is going to be, but it's definable enough that we can go ahead with the project as promised," said Johnson. "As a matter of fact, we just got a letter within the last day or two from I-EPA indicating that they were going full speed with the project. So this came as a complete suprise to us, and it came as a complete surprise to everybody in the delegation apparently with the exception of Senator (Dick) Durbin."
Johnson says the Illinois US Senator had plenty of time to take credit for FutureGen's original plan... but has now become someone he can't count on. The Congressman says Republican colleagues Mark Kirk and John Shimkus are also upset with the revamped plan. Meanwhile, the chairman of the consortium of energy companies supporting the FutureGen project said it was ready to go ahead with the revised plans. Steven Winberg of the FutureGen Alliance says they look forward to "moving the project to the new phase", and working with the Energy Department and officials in Coles County to better understand the new plan's "details and merits".
The FutureGen project has taken a completely new turn -- and the bottom line is that Mattoon will not be hosting a power plant.
Instead, Senator Dick Durbin says the Department of Energy's new plan for the project is to retrofit an existing coal-fired power plant in western Illinois with a process called oxy-combustion. That process is designed to reduce CO2 emissions from the plant - what DOES get emitted would be sent by a brand new pipeline to Mattoon, where it would be stored in the underground facility that was already proposed for that site.
Durbin says Mattoon will still host a major portion of the FutureGen project - just not a freestanding power plant.
"It really made no sense to say we're going to build a power plant to prove what's already being tested in three of four different commercial facilities. That happens when you wait six years," Durbin told reporters Thursday afternoon. "So we tried to pick a technology that had a future, for retrofitting power plants and creating a pipeline that would be of value."
Durbin says the change will reduce the price tag to $1.2 billion, some of it contributed by the alliance of power and coal companies in FutureGen. He says plant retrofitting and pipeline work could begin next spring - the underground pipeline would use existing easements, some of them already containing pipelines.
Senator Durbin also says instead of the plant, Mattoon site would hold a training facility for experts to retrofit many other coal-fired plants across the country over time. But he says funding for that facility has not yet been lined up.
Elizabeth Garcia says food stamps allow her to feed her three children.
The Mahomet woman's family is one of the record 780,000 Illinois households who relied on food stamps in June. The state Department of Human Services says the economy is the primary reason more people than ever are using food stamps.
Garcia's family lives mainly on her boyfriend's $540 a month in restaurant wages. She hasn't been able to find work. The 32-year-old says food stamps mean her kids eat healthy food.
But Alana Sykes of Rantoul found out Monday that even her unemployment benefits are too high for her to qualify. Sykes lost her job in state layoffs late last year. And she says those unemployment benefits aren't enough to buy fresh fruit and vegetables.
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