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Chicago Workers Say: No Hospital Give Away!

By Joe Iosbaker

Nurses, Workers Battle Pirates of Privatization

Hundreds of workers rally April 3 against plans to privatize the UIC Medical Cen

Chicago, IL – On April 3, nearly 400 workers and nurses rallied and attended a public hearing against the privatization schemes of the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). They are opposed to a secret administration plan to merge the UIC hospital with the private hospital called Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center.

A fight has been going on here for over a year. Nurses and workers from all departments – housekeeping, food service, transport, medical records, parking, and animal laboratories – are standing together against a common enemy.

That enemy is a gang of top bosses who aim to take this state medical center and make it private. The hospital administration sees that their masters in the Health Maintenance Organizations (HMO's) and insurance companies are making billions in profit. And they want in on the loot!

Defend Seniority Rights!

April 3 also saw investigative hearings held on the UIC campus with state legislators. The elected representatives from Chicago – Black, Latino, and white – included State Senator Miguel del Valle (a long time supporter of the workers' fight here), a representative of Congressman Danny Davis, and other members of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Following the hearing, the workers marched on the UIC Hospital, where they responded to the threat to eliminate guaranteed seniority rights. Eventually, the picket line swelled to nearly 200 people as work shifts ended and employees came from the hospital and clinics. A giant 25 foot rat was inflated in front of the hospital as workers chanted, “U – I! You rat! Privatize us? We'll see about that!”

The stage for this new round of struggle was set when UIC Medical Center announced they were separating the hospital from the rest of the campus. This means that the workers and nurses would lose their seniority rights. 600 union workers in the hospital are part of Local 73 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). As part of UIC's entire campus in Chicago, they are members of a bargaining unit of over 1800 workers. In the event of job cuts, long-term employees should have job security. But as a “separate place of employment,” they would face unemployment.

SEIU filed a lawsuit in the name of chief steward Judy Jones, who has 30 years of seniority in the hospital. Nearly 200 workers turned out for a meeting Feb. 24 to defend their seniority rights.

Speaking for housekeepers, chief steward Louis Diaz said, “For a custodian, the most precious thing is seniority rights.” Housekeepers have been under fire for over a year. Management has repeatedly tried to undermine their seniority. “You start on nights and weekends, but with time, you get some control over your life. It's immoral for management to ask us to give that up.”

SEIU and the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) have filed complaints with the Labor Board against the bosses' plan for a “separate place of employment.” The Labor Board upheld the complaint, handing an important legal victory to the nurses and workers. Seyfarth, Fairwether and Shaw, UIC's notorious union busting law firm, suffered a defeat.

Despite Record Number of Patients, Crisis Still Looms

In the past 10 years, the number of outpatient visits at the UIC Medical Center has doubled. This year there will be nearly 400,000 visits. The number of inpatient visits has also grown. But a number of pressures are combining to make this a crisis atmosphere.

First, the HMOs are taking over more of the healthcare industry, making vast amounts of money. Their shareholders expect 20% rates of return on their investments. In addition, the HMOs are making healthcare workers pay for those profits.

Second, the government is cutting back their support for healthcare for poor people. The Balanced Budget Act that President Clinton signed in 1997 cut Medicaid in '98, and there will be another cut this fall.

Third, the bosses in public hospitals want some of the loot hauled in by the HMOs. At UIC, the top bosses saw their salaries soar in recent years. Chip Rice, the vice-chancellor of Health Services, got an $80,000 a raise this year, from $250,000 to $330,000.

Workers' Backs To The Wall

At UIC, employees are working harder than ever, but still, layoffs are threatened. Over 500 jobs were eliminated from the hospital in the last 4 years. The bosses hired a vicious management company, called the Hunter Group, to force the job cuts. In October, David Coats of the Hunter Group set out plans to cut 100 more jobs. Protests by the SEIU and INA forced the University to send the Hunter Group packing before their contract expired.

But the threat of job cuts still hangs over our heads. The bosses at UIC are reeling from the fight back that has gone on. However, the crisis compels them to attack us again and again. UIC bosses have a plan to get themselves out of the crisis. This involves a merger with the wealthy, private hospital, Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center.

Rodney Telomen, a nurse and a member of the INA negotiating committee, explained what is behind the merger talks. Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's is also hurting from managed care. Telomen said, “Rush is looking for a way out of their $40 million debt. They think that taking over UIC's profitable sections and closing the others will help save them.”

The greedy top management at UIC and Rush made a pact that guarantees that workers will face more attacks.

“Separate place of employment” beaten back

On April 3rd, management made a major concession when faced with the firm opposition of SEIU Local 73, the INA, and their supporters. John DeNardo, CEO of the hospital, sent an e-mail message to all Hospital employees. The memo stated that he is suspending implementation of the “separate place of employment” proposal that had been threatened. The memo said he would not put it into effect until negotiations are held with the unions.

Sirlena Perry, Local 73 assistant chief steward, said, “Workers need to take this victory and fight on, to stop the department by department privatizations that are occurring, and to ensure that UIC Hospital and Clinics remain public.”

A Future of Struggle

In the past period, workers around the U.S. have suffered many setbacks to their wages, rights and working conditions. At UIC, workers have stood up and fought. As Randy Evans, a housekeeper and union steward said, “I'm a warrior. My mother, a founder of the INA at UIC, taught me to fight. We can't stand by and let them implement their master plan.”

Workers at UIC are prepared to do whatever it takes to defend themselves and to keep the medical center public.

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