Dart, Preckwinkle are in toxic clash over Teamster talks
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Crain's Chicago Business
by Greg Hinz
The relationship between Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and Sheriff Tom Dart has virtually broken down over a key new labor contract, with a bitter exchange between the two offices over a pending deal with the Teamsters Union covering 3,500 guards at the county jail and related positions.
In a series of letters I obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request—you can read two of them at the end of this story—Dart's office says it is "disappointed" that Preckwinkle aides "did not follow through" in bargaining work-rule changes needed to curb soaring overtime at the jail. Preckwinkle's office replied that Dart's letter is "full of mischaracterizations and blame" and that it's Dart's fault more concessions were not obtained.
At one point, the Preckwinkle letter suggested that, to get what he wanted, Dart need to go slower and "be willing to give something in exchange for what you hope to receive from the unions. . . .You have to build relationships, build trust with your employees."
Dart and Preckwinkle often have clashed through the years. Nonetheless, this sharp exchange is dropping jaws all over the County Building, with board members saying it provides a "disturbing" and "alarming" look at bargaining on the new contract, which could come up for board action in October and, if approved, set a pattern for deals now being negotiated with other unions.
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"I'm very concerned that there's been a breakdown in how this contract was done," said Evanston Democrat Lawrence Suffredin, noting Dart and Preckwinkle even retained separate labor lawyers during the talks. "Both letters show a lack of collaboration and a lack of cooperation, which costs us and taxpayers money."
News of the dispute also comes as Preckwinkle tries to quell a board revolt over her controversial penny-an-ounce tax on sweetened beverages. As I previously reported, the Teamsters supported the pop tax and, in a letter to members, thanked Preckwinkle for her "very fair" treatment during negotiations.
"The sheriff's office wanted more items," it said. "These things were rejected by the bargaining team."
At the core of the dispute is a system in which the president's office traditionally negotiates overall economic terms of all union deals, but individual elected officials such as Dart have a big say on non-economic matters.
In his letter, Dart's general counsel, Nicholas Scouffas, makes it clear the sheriff wanted the old system to end, given growth in overtime at the jail, with paid leave doubling since 2012 and overtime leaping from $18.7 million in 2015 to $24 million last year.
"When we first discussed our proposals, you insisted that the old way of negotiating be maintained," Scouffas wrote in a letter to Velisha Haddox and LaShon DeFell, head of the county Bureau of Human Resources and deputy chief of labor relations, respectively. The president's team later "appeared to change your position," but "you did not follow through."
"In the meantime," it concludes, "the sheriff's office expects that your negotiated increases to the sheriff's budget will be covered by the county without some unrealistic expectation that our overtime will decrease as substantially as (Dart's) changes would have allowed."
Haddox, in her letter back, said Dart's letter is missing "an acceptance of responsibility and accountability" for its own failures.
"Our labor team offered to mediate a deal between your office and Teamsters. You declined," she said, going on to allege that Dart's office changed its position and presented "zero proposals" for change.
Despite that, the county negotiated helpful changes, such as a provision to allow the sheriff's office to do home visits to ensure that staffers who had taken sick time off were indeed at home recovering.
Suffredin said he disagrees with the suggestion in Preckwinkle's letter that unions need to be sweet-talked into changes. But his bigger concern is that management is divided between Preckwinkle and Dart.
Similar comments came from North Side Democratic Commissioner Bridget Gainer.
"Of course any negotiation is a give-and-take," she said. However, "we need to be on the same page if we're going to be effective. . . .If the president's office is taking the lead on this contract, then they shouldn't act until they have consensus" with the sheriff.
Gainer noted she and Suffredin have introduced a plan to hold off approval of this and any other contract unless a fiscal note detailing its costs to taxpayers has been filed at least 30 days earlier.
A third commissioner, Elmwood Park Republican Peter Silvestri, called it "alarming that one of the largest contracts in the county isn't subject to the collaboration needed to save people a lot of money."
Who's to blame? "There's enough jackets for both of them," Silvestri replied. But in negotiations, "you have to start high. Then maybe you come down."
Preckwinkle spokesman Frank Shuftan says the administration is standing by its position. "Bargaining in good faith is the responsibility of all parties. That is our approach and will continue to be so," he emailed, adding that commissioners will have plenty of time to review details of the proposed pact without any new fiscal note.
Dart isn't moving, either. "We had to fight to be at the table," says his spokeswoman, Cara Smith. "We presented a laundry list of proposals, and feel we weren't given the opportunity to pursue them."
Change is needed, she added. "These people (guards) don't want to work. In a recent weekend, we had 132 people who called in (for a day) off. We're rewarding poor behavior."
To read the letters from Dart's Office HR Director Haddox and her response click here
Letter to Haddox and DeFell by AnnRWeiler on Scribd