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Council 31 Members Make Gains in the Fight for Workplace Safety

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By AFSCME Council 31 Worth the Fight Health & Safety

AFSCME Council 31 members who work for Illinois’ Department of Corrections and Department of Juvenile Justice successfully used their union contract to tackle the growing  problem of assaults on employees in DOC and DJJ facilities.

Council 31 members filed a class-action grievance against both departments that detailed the scope and extent of the assaults. The union argued that the employers’ responses have been inadequate under both the contract and state law.

An arbitrator issued a ruling recently granting the union’s grievance and affirming the gravity of the situation, indicating that DOC and DJJ failed to meet the state’s responsibility to “provide a safe environment in its corrections facilities and youth centers.”

He said his finding was based on “the evidence and testimony presented at the hearing, including the large number of assaults, the lack of thorough training, the failure to address certain conditions and the testimony of the employees who were assaulted.”

Long time coming

The decision is “long overdue,” said AFSCME Local 1866 President Ralph Portwood. “This has been ongoing and now we have documentation to back up what we’ve been saying all along. And it has teeth to it. The arbitrator still has jurisdiction so we can bring it back to him if they’re not adhering to the decision.”

The case included dozens of grievances at facilities across the state involving everything from staff assaults to inadequate equipment and training.

“There’s a feeling of optimism,” Local 2073 President Shaun Dawson said. “Finally having an outside entity say there is a problem justifies the issues we’ve been bringing up for more than four years. Our safety concerns aren’t a random complaint. There is a true and legitimate problem.”

Bearing witness

Over eight days of hearings, AFSCME members came from across the state to describe growing dangers in the prison system and, in some instances, assaults committed against them.

“The danger that management has ignored is outlandish,” said Local 416 Vice President Ashley Landrus, a juvenile justice specialist at the Illinois Youth Center in St. Charles, who testified in the hearings. “The issues that the arbitrator heard, the stories from staff, were the very evidence we’ve brought to management. They acknowledge it but they didn’t care to have a hand in fixing it.”

“Working in the environment that we do, you have to expect an element of violence. But you shouldn’t get used to it and that’s what we’ve had to do,” said Dawson of Local 2073. “It doesn’t have the shock value it did. We need to get back to ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe that happened.’”

During the arbitration, DJJ and DOC blamed problems on staff rather than accepting responsibility.

“It was tough to sit through that,” Dawson said. “They tried to decrease the numbers when they reported them and modify the definition of assault so there would be fewer. They wanted to present a false reality that things aren’t that bad. But we had the bodies in front of them to testify to the conditions employees are exposed to on a daily basis, and the arbitrator saw the truth.”

Change for the better 

The arbitrator’s March 25 decision mandated that the departments must work with union representatives to find solutions to the problems plaguing both staff and inmates. 

“For the first time in a long time, we feel like things are going to get better,” Dawson said. “Now management must work with us to find the solutions. One of our members suffers terribly from PTSD from being severely beaten, and she cried when she heard the news. The level of importance that this arbitration has to our members, the ones that have been hurt and seen people they work with every day get hurt, it’s groundbreaking. We received vindication in this arbitration.” 

“This whole process has taken such a long time,” said Landrus of Local 416. “We’ve held press conferences, issued reports, rallied at our workplaces and lobbied legislators. I’m ecstatic that something positive has come out of all our hard work.”

“Our success in this case is going to change the way business is conducted in the departments,” said Portwood of Local 1866, adding that it shows newer members “why we do what we do as a union.”

As a result of the victory, Council 31 Regional Director Eddie Caumiant said, “We’re now establishing a joint labor-management review process that will develop specific steps to protect employees who are on the front lines every day.”