CHICAGO (AP) — The fight over Gov. Pat Quinn's decision to cancel raises for thousands of public employees hit the streets Tuesday, with state workers across Illinois walking picket lines, chanting and hoisting signs.
In Chicago, about 100 workers marched in the blazing sun in front of a downtown state building across from Quinn's office, chanting, "It's disgusting, union busting." About three dozen workers marched in Springfield, where the heat index reached 111, in front of two state office buildings.
A handful of workers gathered in Champaign as part of a statewide effort by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union to hold informational pickets at 75 work sites.
"Public employees have become easy targets for legislators who don't seem to want to do their job," said Richard Turner, an energy and natural resources specialist for the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity in Springfield. "With the huge tax increase, they should be able to honor their commitment."
Workers are upset over Quinn's decision to deny $75 million in raises to 30,000 workers in 14 state agencies in order to help Illinois cope with its budget crisis, despite a recent hefty increase in the state income tax.
Quinn continued to defend his actions Tuesday, saying he had no choice because the General Assembly didn't appropriate money for the raises.
"Unless the General Assembly changes its mind and appropriates more money for their raises, there's no money to pay the raises and it's as simple as that. So if they're going to be focusing on anything, I think they should focus on the legislative process," Quinn said at an event earlier Tuesday in Chicago.
Quinn's insistence that lawmakers didn't set aside money in the budget to pay the raises isn't entirely accurate. Lawmakers cut spending for salaries despite the scheduled raises, but budgets don't distinguish between regular salaries and raises. It's the governor's decision how to spend the money lawmakers give him for employees.
AFSCME has sued over the denial of the raises, saying Quinn is violating the workers' contact. The union also has sought a ruling from an arbitrator. Two Illinois Federation of Teachers' locals also announced they have gone to federal court in Springfield asking that the raises be reinstated.
The Illinois Nurses Association has also filed a grievance with the state.
Wes James, an Illinois Department of Labor employee in Chicago who has worked for the state for 10 years, said not paying the raises is like defaulting on a mortgage.
"I can't just call my mortgage company and say 'Oh, I know I've signed this contract but I'm not going to honor it,' and I think the governor needs to do the same and the Legislature particularly," James said.
Cynthia Peete of Urbana has been a state employee for 37 years and works in Child Support Enforcement. She uses her roughly $60,000-a-year salary to support herself and put her 23-year-old son through college at Eastern Illinois University.
"We gave up our raises last year so people wouldn't get laid off," the 62-year-old said while holding a picket sign outside a state office in Champaign. "We were promised that (Quinn) would give us our raises this year."
Now, she doesn't believe state employees can trust Quinn, whom she voted for in the governor's race last year. "I won't vote for him again," she said.
Marcus Sherrod, a disabilities adjudicator for the Department of Human Services in Springfield, said state workers should not take the heat for the budget shortfalls.
"It's important for the governor to understand we're taxpayers. We're employees of the state and we're not a burden on the state; we're helping people," Sherrod said. "Not paying us is like taking money out of the community."
Associated Press writers John O'Connor in Springfield and David Mercer in Champaign contributed to this report.