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Illinois Mental Health Workers Win 3-Year Struggle for Dignity

February 02, 2011

Ending one of the nation’s longest labor disputes, approximately 30 employees of Heartland Human Services in Effingham, Ill., ratified a contract with management in August that will return them to work after two years on the picket line – a one-year strike that they decided to end, followed by a one-year lockout.

The employees, who provide residential and outpatient mental health treatment at the state-funded private, non-profit center, fought for a total of three years. “They never wavered,” says Council 31 Exec. Director Henry Bayer, also an AFSCME International vice president. “They always promised to fight one day longer than necessary to win fair treatment and respect for the important work they do. Their solidarity and dedication is a tremendous inspiration to us all.”

After forming a union with Council 31 in February 2006, representatives of Local 3491 began what became contentious negotiations marked by unfair treatment and repeated delays from management. In July 2007, the workers went on a strike that lasted a full year.

Anna Beck, a counselor case manager and a member of the contract negotiating committee at the time, says the strikers decided to end their strike and fight for a new contract from the inside, but management refused to let the strikers return to work.

Eventually the state intervened after Council 31 persisted in pointing out that the government was paying the agency for services that weren’t being provided.  The agency fired its executive director and proceeded, finally, to negotiate in good faith. That bargaining culminated in the ratification of a two-year contract.

The two-year agreement grants employees unprecedented rights previously denied, including binding arbitration, authority to conduct union activities (such as meeting with stewards) during work hours, freedom from discrimination based on union membership and a prohibition against lockout.

The workers also won substantial salary increases in the first year of the contract, a 2.5 percent increase in year two and more paid time off.

Beck says the workers are “so thankful that we chose AFSCME as our union because they stood with us to keep us strong. Our Solidarity Fund kept us supplied with income and people came from all over the state to stand on the strike line with us.”

The victory “has empowered us as people,” Beck adds. “We’ve proved that if you stand together, they can’t tear you apart.”

Learn more about the Heartland workers’ victory in the Effingham Daily News and also on Council 31’s website.

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