SPRINGFIELD – Two Illinois Supreme Court rulings issued Thursday are a mixed bag for public employee unions.
In a case involving to pension funds for Chicago city employees, the state’s high court once again struck down a law that would have reduced pension benefits, mirroring two earlier rulings in cases involving health care benefits and pensions for retired state workers.
But in a separate case involving nearly $53 million back wages owed to 24,000 workers in five state agencies, the court ruled that the state isn’t obligated to pay because the General Assembly didn’t appropriate enough money to cover the expense.
The pair of rulings prompted starkly contrasting reactions from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31, which represents workers in both cases.
In a joint statement with three other unions involved in the Chicago case, AFSCME said the “ruling strengthens the promise of dignity in retirement for those who serve our communities and reinforces the Illinois Constitution, our state’s highest law.”
However, Roberta Lynch, AFSCME Council 31’s executive director, called the back pay ruling “very disappointing.”
"This was a case about the principle that someone who works for a living – in this instance, to protect public health, ensure safe prisons or care for the disabled – should be paid what they are owed for the work they have done,” Lynch said in a written statement. “It was also about the integrity of state government – that when it enters into a contract, it must live up to its terms.”
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The case stems from then-Gov. Pat Quinn’s 2011 decision to forgo 2 percent raises for employees in 14 state agencies because the legislature didn’t appropriate enough money to cover the cost. An arbitrator determined that, regardless of an appropriation, the state had to pay the raises it agreed to in its contract with the union.
The state challenged that decision, but lower courts upheld it.
As the case made its way through the judicial system, money was found to cover the raises at nine agencies, leaving workers in the departments of Human Services, Corrections, Juvenile Justice, Public Health and Natural Resources waiting for an average of $2,500 in back pay.
The court’s ruling, written by Justice Mary Jane Theis, hinges on a portion of the Illinois Public Labor Relations Act that says labor contracts are “subject to the appropriations power of the employer.”
“Because … the appropriation power of the state resides with the General Assembly … multiyear collective bargaining agreements negotiated with the state … are subject to the state’s appropriation power, as exercised by the General Assembly,” the court wrote.
In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas Kilbride argued that the ruling could undermine confidence in any state contract, but the majority opinion said it applied narrowly to collective bargaining agreements.
The state House and Senate passed separate bills last year that would have authorized payment of the back wages, but neither chamber approved the other’s version.
As for the pension ruling, it underscores what the Supreme Court has already made clear in previous cases involving the pension protection clause of the Illinois Constitution, said Edward Kionka, an emeritus law professor at Southern Illinois University who represented state retirees in the case involving changes to their health care benefits.
“The bottom line is, you can change the pension system all you want for new employees,” Kionka said. “But you can’t change it for people who are members of the system.”