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Article updated: 2/21/2014 4:44 PM

Waukegan District 60 teachers authorize union leaders to call strike

By Bob Susnjara

Teachers have voted overwhelmingly to let union leaders call a strike at Lake County's largest school district if there is no resolution to a dispute centering on their monthly insurance payments.

Lake County Federation of Teachers union President Michael McGue said the Waukegan Unit District 60 local's strike vote was tabulated Thursday. He said a strike date has not been set for the district serving about 17,000 students in prekindergarten through high school.

"I do think we're open and we're ready to go back to the bargaining table," McGue said Friday.

District 60 spokesman Nicholas Alajakis said it's believed the school board and union will resume negotiations Thursday, Feb. 27.

McGue said nearly all 1,063 unionized teachers cast ballots for the strike authorization vote. He said 98 percent voted to let union leaders call a strike if contract talks are unsuccessful.

Because an impasse was declared Feb. 4, both sides have submitted final offers with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. Negotiations between the sides started last spring for what the union contends was supposed to be a salary "reopener" for the 2013-14 contract, but instead has been focused on health coverage.

Alajakis said the district believes a strike couldn't be called before June 30 because a contract is in place.

"We certainly hope that a fair agreement can be reached before that time," he said.

But McGue said the union has a legal opinion on the matter that differs from the Waukegan district's position on what it may do before the 2013-14 school season ends.

"Our lawyer told us we can (strike)," he said.

District 60 said it has been paying 100 percent of monthly premiums for union members' single health care coverage. Instructors with dependent health care pay a portion of the premiums.

"The board can no longer sustain the subsidy it has historically provided," District 60 documents say.

District 60 proposes that every teacher with single insurance contribute $10 for each of 24 paychecks. The instructors also would contribute 50 percent toward any annual health care increase, which would have ranged from $222 to $297 depending on coverage in 2013-14.

Teachers would get a 2.3 percent base salary increase retroactive to July 1, 2013, under the Waukegan school system's proposal.

In part, the union seeks 5 percent longevity raises for all instructors, no cost sharing for single health insurance and sharing 50 percent of annual cost hikes for dependent care.

Documents filed by the union say teachers agreed to a salary freeze and other concessions that led to a $33 million working cash surplus for District 60.

"The district already faces an overwhelming turnover rate for teachers," the union says, "and with the district's proposal, the ability to attract and retain quality teachers would increase exponentially."

Twitter: @DHBobSusnjara

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