May 31, 2024

Evanston Public Works action leads to union wins

After experiencing a sharp uptick in the number of on-the-job injuries and violations of their union contract, workers in the Evanston Public Works Department took to the picket line in an action that caught management’s attention.

In addition to the safety concerns, the union said the city wasn’t honoring workers’ standby pay, seniority rights and the progressive discipline process.

On April 29, they picketed outside a meeting of the Evanston City Council’s Administration and Public Works Committee, before heading inside to say their piece directly to the committee.

Eileen O’Neil, the president of AFSCME Local 1891 and a safety specialist, told the committee that chronically low staffing levels are contributing to the troubling increase in injuries.

“We think that it has a direct impact on our injuries, which have doubled under this current director,” O’Neil said. “Our Public Works members are not disposable. They’re human beings and they have the right to a healthy and safe work environment. And cutting corners on preventative maintenance and cutting corners on safety is having a direct physical impact on our workers.”

Of Local 1891’s 350 members, 120 are in public works. But the department is short more than 30 positions. While staffing dwindled, management was asking workers to do more with less. For example, sanitation workers were expected to complete their trash pick-up routes in eight hours, even though there were fewer people on a truck.

If they were unable to complete their route in the amount of time management allotted, they would be disciplined.

“It’s just not possible to do what management was asking in only eight hours,” O’Neil said.

To circumvent their contract’s requirement that workers be paid standby pay whenever they are on call, management started adding a line to job descriptions saying that those positions were required to be on call 24/7, 365 days a year.

When the union insisted that this was a change in working conditions and demanded to bargain over it, management ignored them.

Two weeks after the picket, Local 1891 had a labor-management meeting, where union leaders recommended solutions to the problems they were facing. O’Neil said management was newly receptive to their ideas and acknowledged that they could do better to keep people safe. Within a week of the picket, management began posting the public works positions that were sitting open.

Management also agreed that their new policy to circumvent standby pay would be removed from all job descriptions and would no longer be applied to current employees.

“We’ve seen real progress,” O’Neil said. “The picket caught their attention.”

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