5300 UIC workers ‘strike for our lives’
Chicago, IL – 4000 workers represented by SEIU Local 73 at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) began an open-ended strike, September 14. They join 1300 nurses represented by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) at the University of Illinois Hospital (UIH), who began a weeklong strike on Saturday, September 12. Central to both strikes is the demand for staffing measures to protect the health and safety of frontline workers, many of whom have been exposed to COVID-19.
The INA nurses’ three-year contract was set to expire in August but was extended to September. Over 20 bargaining sessions throughout the summer yielded little progress on a new contract, and the nurses authorized a strike in a 995 to 12 vote on August 20.
That same week, 94% of SEIU Local 73 members approved their own strike. Members of the local across the Clerical, Technical, Service & Maintenance, and Professional units at UIC have been without a contract for about a year.
Striking for or lives
Amid a growing economic crisis and pandemic, these contract fights have taken on an increasingly militant character. Partly, this reflects the backdrop of the ongoing protests sparked by George Floyd’s killing. The majority of the workers in SEIU Local 73 are Black and Latino, and many of the nurses are Filipino, Latino and Black, so the strike is a struggle for safety and for fair wages, but is also a struggle against institutional racism at UIC.
More immediately though, this is a fight for survival. Central to both unions’ contract negotiations is the demand that the administration provides adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and implement staffing measures that can potentially save lives.
Many hospital workers have only been given surgical masks and gloves for protection, and as far back as April, infections were spreading beyond the COVID-designated floors. In June, the Wall Street Journal used an image of the University of Illinois Hospital as the header for a story about COVID spread within hospitals, making UIH the poster child for failure to keep workers safe. As of September 12, about 270 UIH workers have tested positive for COVID-19, including at least 18 nurses.
In a vigil the Monday before the strike started, nurses at UIC honored two nurses, one of their husbands, and two frontline workers, all of who died as a result of infections in the workplace.
Safe patient limits
According to INA president and UIH nurse Doris Carroll, one of the most pressing demands is for limits on the number of patients assigned to each nurse, also known as safe patient limits or nurse-to-patient ratios.
Adequate staffing and PPE top the list of Local 73’s demands as well. The administration has refused to engage these demands during negotiations, and the local has filed unfair labor practice charges over UIC’s conduct. Altogether, management’s actions have left the workers of Local 73 feeling disrespected.
UIH sues, recruits strikebreakers from COVID hotspots
In response to the strike votes, the University of Illinois board of trustees sued to bar nurses and hospital technicians and technologists from striking, claiming that a strike by certain critical care nurses in 12 units would “cause a clear and present danger to public health and safety.” Those units are the medical and surgical COVID unit, bone marrow transplant unit, emergency department, labor and delivery unit, hematology oncology clinic, adolescent psychiatric comprehensive assessment and treatment unit, the center for women's health, and several ICU units.
A judge granted orders Friday to bar those job titles in those units from joining the strike, totaling 535 nurses and 300 Local 73 members. The barred workers still joined the picket lines before and after their shifts.
During a day of high-spirited marches and rallies in front of the hospital and around the medical center campus, nurses chanted against a hated administrator for trying to curry favor with them with cookies, instead of addressing safety for nurses and patients. A nurse dressed in a Cookie Monster costume in protest. INA President Carroll said the nurses were angry with chief nursing officer, Dr. Shelly Major. Carroll said, “Dr. Major is out of touch with the reality our nurses face each day when they come to work.”
Speaking of the management as the first strike day for Local 73 members began, Lavitta Steward, a program services aide in ophthalmology and a spokesperson for the clerical bargaining committee, said, “Management isn’t interested in a resolution, and now they’re trying to make us look like the bad guys because we decided to strike right now. Think about how desperate and fed up people must be to be willing to go without pay right now in such a time as this. UIC needs to hear us, to respect us, and they need to treat us better so we can translate that to the patients.”