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SPRINGFIELD — An administrative law judge on Thursday recommended dismissing a July 2017 unfair labor practice charge against the Alexander County Housing Authority filed on behalf of local housing authority workers in Cairo.

The Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local 773, filed the complaint a month after HUD Secretary Ben Carson personally signed paperwork abruptly ending a collective bargaining agreement between the union and financially troubled local housing authority.

In doing so, Carson cited the federal agency’s rarely used or tested authority to abrogate any contracts that impede recovery of local housing authorities that have defaulted on their contractual agreements with HUD.

Those annual contribution contracts dictate housing authorities’ obligations to maintain decent, safe housing in accordance with the law in exchange for federal funds intended to reduce the rent burden for qualified low-income families. HUD declared the Alexander County Housing Authority in substantial default in February 2016 and took over its operations.

The administrative law judge’s recommendation is advisory in nature.

The matter now moves to the Illinois Labor Relations Board, whose members have the authority to accept, reject or modify it. Under terms of the Illinois Labor Relations Act, the state panel is charged with adjudicating labor disputes between state and local governmental entities and employee unions when they arise.

A representative of the Marion-based Local 773 did not return a phone call seeking comment. HUD spokesman Jereon Brown said the agency, as a policy, does not comment on pending litigation.

Prior to the board taking up the charge, both parties have the ability to file additional arguments for the board to consider in making a final decision. And following the board’s decision, either party can file an appeal to the Illinois Appellate Court for administrative review.

Carson’s order canceling the Local 773’s labor agreement with the Alexander County Housing Authority, under HUD’s control in receivership, came two months after HUD officials announced plans to tear down two 1940s-era housing complexes in Cairo that were home to hundreds of children and their families. HUD said the housing authority was bankrupt, and that neither repairing nor rebuilding was an option because of that. 

HUD had also previously cited the ACHA for conflicts of interest between managers and union officials. John Price, a Local 773 union negotiator for ACHA employees, also was a member of the ACHA board; he voted on contracts as a board member that he negotiated as a union representative on behalf of ACHA employees, records show. HUD has barred Price from participating in federal programs for three years.

Separately, The Southern Illinoisan previously reported that Wilson’s campaign for mayor in 2003 was almost entirely funded by political action committees affiliated with the Local 773 to the tune of about $50,000, which is a substantial sum for a small-town mayoral race. State election records show that Wilson’s primary campaign expenditures were for organizing workers and “get-out-the-vote” initiatives; checks from his campaign account were written directly to Wilson. He lost that race. 

Prior to Carson’s abrogation action, union representatives and HUD officials overseeing the ACHA agreed to mediation in an effort to work out a new labor agreement. They met for a mediation session on June 27, but did not come to an agreement. The next day, Carson directed the ACHA to immediately end the collective bargaining agreement, saying in a memo that it contained “extremely favorable” terms for the employees and “no protection or flexibility for the ACHA.” A union representative told The Southern at the time that the contract was “sloppy,” and that employees were willing to reduce their benefits. But he also said the union thought it was making progress negotiating new terms, and negotiators were taken by surprise by HUD’s move.

It its unfair labor practice charge, the Local 773 alleged that the Alexander County Housing Authority, an entity of local government in Illinois, did not negotiate in good faith, and failed to give proper notice to employees, the union and the Illinois Labor Relations Board that it intended to terminate a collective bargaining agreement, as required by the state’s labor laws.

But HUD argued that these decisions were directed by senior federal officials with HUD, and not the ACHA. Matthew Nagy, the administrative law judge, agreed with HUD. Federal law plainly states that HUD has the authority to abrogate any contracts if HUD’s secretary determines certain conditions have been met, he wrote. Further, he wrote that these decisions are not subject to any judicial review in federal or state court, and that nothing suggests that HUD needs to first secure the acquiescence of a housing authority before doing so. 

The five-member Illinois Labor Relations Board typically meets the second Tuesday of every month. The board is expected to consider the judge’s recommended order and any exceptions to it filed by the parties within the next few months.

Currently, the board only has four members; one slot is vacant. All four sitting members are newly appointed by Gov. J.B. Prtizker. Board members’ terms typically stagger to where it’s atypical that a newly seated governor would have the power to immediately appoint an entirely new panel. But the Democratic governor was able to name a new slate in this case because of a retirement, vacancy, and expired term accounting for three open seats, and by pulling the nominations of two members appointed by the previous governor that had yet to earn Senate confirmation.

On March 25, Pritzker named to the board Cook County residents Kendra Cunningham, Jose Gudino and William Lowry Jr., and Will County resident John Cronin.

Before accepting the position, Cunningham had most recently served as the staff attorney and business manager for the Illinois State Employees Association Local 2002, which mostly represents mid-level Department of Corrections supervisors. The Local 2002 is an affiliated local union of the Laborers’ International Union of North America; Cunningham has previously worked for the Laborers’ International’s Midwest regional office, and for the Laborers’ Local 773. It’s unclear if she will participate in board deliberations in the case. The board’s executive director declined comment.

Brown, the HUD spokesman, did not respond to a question about whether HUD had previously moved to abrogate collective bargaining agreements with local housing authorities in receivership prior to doing so in Cairo. 

HUD has only taken over about 20 housing authorities since 1985, when it first placed the East St. Louis Housing Authority into administrative receivership. Most recently, HUD declared the New York City Housing Authority in substantial default of its contractual obligations to provide decent, safe housing, but stopped short of a full takeover. The agreement in New York allows HUD, if certain conditions are met, to temporarily take over the nation’s largest housing authority to allow the secretary to abrogate union contracts.

Lynne Patton, HUD’s New York/New Jersey administrator, has aggressively criticized costly union agreements for contributing to squalor living conditions in her home state, and hinted at the possibility that the secretary may flex his authority on a much larger scale. Thousands of union workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements with New York City’s housing authority. The ACHA collective bargaining agreement covered only seven workers.

Citing a story about hourly rates and overtime pay for plumbers, Patton wrote on Twitter, “My (F------) head is about to explode … Over my dead body will this continue with ZERO RESULTS.” In February, Patton tagged New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, who announced Thursday that he's running for president, in a post and said that she hears unions make ‘“great donations.” “Well, I ain’t running for anything, so I don’t give a F,” she continued in another tweet. “And HUD is going to abbrogate any union contracts that directly interfere with the monitor’s ability to ensure decent, safe & sanitary housing for long-suffering NYCHA residents.”

Last year, The Southern Illinoisan and ProPublica found that about one in eight public housing properties nationally had failed their most recent federal inspection. Congress has slashed funding for housing authorities almost every year for two decades. Donald Trump’s administration has proposed zeroing out capital funding for major repairs to housing authority properties, though Congress has thus far rejected those budget proposals.

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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

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