Lawsuit

The Elmwood Apartment complex, shown Tuesday, May 10, 2016, is a Alexander County Housing Authority property.

SPRINGFIELD — Sometime in 2018, the Illinois Labor Relations Board is expected to hear the unfair labor practice charge filed this summer by the Laborers’ International Union of North America Local 773 after federal housing officials moved to end the collective bargaining agreement between the Alexander County Housing Authority and the union representing employees.

According to records The Southern obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, ILRB Executive Director Kimberly Stevens moved to have the complaint heard at a hearing, which means that after an investigation, she determined that the state panel has jurisdiction over the matter, and that there are issues of law and fact to be determined.

In the “Complaint for Hearing” document she filed on Sept. 13, Stevens did not state an opinion on the matter, as the outcome will be determined during the hearing process in Springfield. A date has not been set yet for hearings to begin in Springfield, though Stevens said recently the process would likely begin next year.

The unfair labor practice charge filed by the Local 773 claims that the Alexander County Housing Authority “failed and refused to bargain in good faith.”

The charge was filed shortly after Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, on June 27, issued a determination directing the immediate abrogation of the collective bargaining agreement between the ACHA, which federal officials are operating under administrative receivership, and the Local 773, which up until that point had been representing all full-time employees of the local housing authority, as it had for years.

Employees at the time were working under the terms of a five-year contract agreed to in October 2010. Though the contract had expired, it included language the labor union interprets as continuing to cover employees until which time a new agreement is reached, which is common language in employer-labor contracts. The charge states that on June 26, the parties met for mediation but did not reach an agreement.

The memo from HUD came the following day, and it took union leaders by surprise. At the time, the then-general manager of the Local 773, Kevin Starr, told The Southern he thought progress had been made that day, and noted that mediation often takes multiple sessions to reach a deal.

But according to the union’s charge, on June 28 — on the heels of Carson issuing the memo — Towanda Macon, a member of HUD’s ACHA recovery team, informed employees their employment with the housing authority would end in 30 days, and that the contract no longer covered the terms of their employment. The Local 773's charge states that these decisions came following an agreement in May to proceed to mediation to assist efforts to reach a new agreement.

At the time, HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said that the decision was necessitated by the fact that the ACHA’s finances were seriously troubled, and that the agency could not afford to pay the salaries and benefits agreed to in the 7-year-old contract. In a letter around that time sent to the school district, Carson described the ACHA as “nearly bankrupt.” The memo Carson signed off on directing the ACHA to end the Local 773's collective bargaining agreement stated that it contained “extremely favorable terms for the employees and "no protection or flexibility for the ACHA.”

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HUD Secretary Carson visits Cairo

HUD Secretary Ben Carson speaks Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017, at a public forum concerning the housing crisis in Cairo. 

Starr, who is no longer with the Local 773, called the contract “sloppy” in an interview in the fall of 2015. This summer, in response to HUD’s decision, Starr said that some of the benefits contained in the contract were excessive, but he said that some of those above-and-beyond the norm benefits, such as two retirement accounts for employees, were included at the request of James Wilson, the former executive director, not the Local 773.

Starr said, at the time, that he thought that there had been movement toward reaching an agreement fair to the ACHA and employees. 

In the ACHA’s official response filed with the ILRB, the local agency denies that the Local 773 represented employees at the time the contract was abrogated, which is at the heart of the legal matter. The reason it gives is that the contract had expired on Sept. 30, 2015. The contract in question states that it takes effect on Oct. 1, 2010, and "shall automatically continue year to year thereafter." It further states that either party wanting to change or modify the agreement was to give 120 days notice prior to the Sept. 30, 2015 expiration of the contract. HUD took over the ACHA on Feb. 22, 2016. 

At the time the decision was announced in June, Brown, of HUD, said ACHA employees were told that they would have the option of reapplying for a new set of positions that HUD created and deemed essential to carry out the duties of the housing authority within its financial constraints. 

The agency estimated that eliminating the positions of 19 full- and part-workers and then rehiring to fill specific needs would save the housing authority about $339,886 annually of the $705,550 it was paying in salary and benefits, according to a financial document that was provided to The Southern when the decision was announced. 

The workers were informed that all but one of the new positions would be part time, up to 32 hours, and that employees will no longer receive any benefits beyond pay, such as health insurance, annual bonuses or employer pension contributions, and no longer be covered by a collective bargaining agreement, Brown said in June. 

“This is completely illegal in our view and every resource we have we will use to make sure they follow the law,” Starr, of the Local 773, said at the time, in response. In September, the Local 773 removed Starr from his position as general manager as the union was placed under "emergency trusteeship" by the international.

In doing so, LIUNA’s Washington, D.C.-based president, Terry O’Sullivan, stated in a letter obtained by The Southern that the general manager was removed from the post related to multiple reports he was carrying firearms and ammunition “in a threatening matter at the local union hall and while on official union business, causing others to also carry firearms while attending union meetings.” Starr has declined to comment on the allegations to The Southern.

The Southern previously reported that Wilson, the former longtime director of the ACHA, and the Local 773, seemed to enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, based on a review of numerous public records. As well, in 2013, HUD officials informed the ACHA it was a conflict of interest for John Price, the union negotiator, to also sit on the ACHA board. Records indicate that Price voted on contracts as a board member that he negotiated as the union representative for ACHA employees covered by the collective bargaining agreement.

Earlier this year, HUD successfully imposed a three-year debarment against Price for what the federal agency claimed was a conflict of interest. That means he is not allowed to participate in the administration of federally funded programs until the sanction expires.

If the ILRB hearing process comes out in the Local 773’s favor, the ACHA could be required to pay back wages and benefits, or other remedies. Brown, of HUD, said the ACHA, which remains in a financially precarious situation, has not set aside any funds to cover costs in the event the ruling is not in their favor. 

molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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Reporter

Molly Parker is general assignment and investigative projects reporter for The Southern Illinoisan.

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