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UIC Workers: Fair Contract or We’ll Strike

By Joe Iosbaker

UIC workers contract fight continues; protesters picket line.

Chicago, IL – Voting was completed for the 1500 clerical workers at the University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) represented by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, April 16. The committee of co-workers elected last summer to negotiate a new contract had called for the vote. On the ballot was one thing: Should the committee be authorized to call a strike if a new contract could not be gained at the bargaining table?

The answer from the union members was quite clear. 84% said yes – a fair contract or strike.

Regina Russell, a member of the committee and a customer service representative from the UIC Medical Center (UICMC), said before the vote, “Workers in my department, Patient Access, are ready to strike.” Russell explained that the number of patients they register and whose insurance they must verify every hour was doubled last year. UICMC reported $5 million in profit in the first quarter of this year. “We registered 500,000 patients last year. How much of that profit do we account for?”

The situation in Patient Access was the same wherever workers worked collectively or in large numbers, such as the Daley Library, Patient Accounts, Health Information Management or the clinics. Those workers voted in large numbers and support for the strike authorization was almost unanimous.

Many workers were upset because management offered no raises in the contract, but got really angry when management eliminated the anniversary raises as well. These are 2% increases for most clerical workers have always been a part of civil service employment. Jennifer Edwards, a committee member, noted that, “The price of gas has risen, our health premiums have increased, everything has gone up. Management gave themselves a 2% raise at the start of the year, but then came to the table to say there was nothing for us.”

Workers overcome fear

A significant reason for those workers who voted “no” was the fear of the economic crisis. “We just have to be thankful we have a job,” said a number of workers. Sirlena Perry, a retired worker and longtime leader of the union who came to help staff the table for the vote, responded to this. “That’s just what management wants us to think. We can’t let the bosses do our thinking for us.”

Workers also had to overcome intimidation by management on the days of the vote. Polling places had been set up in common areas in University Hall, Daley Library and the Student Services Building. Campus police were called and ordered the union staff and members to leave the buildings. Many workers missed their chance to cast their ballot as a result. In November, the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) had staged a job action in the same common area in University Hall. With 80 people in that action, they filled the area for the entire day with their ‘work-in.’ The police allowed that protest to take place.

Urging workers to be strong, Perry told them, “We have made so many gains through the union, including when we won the struggle against the racist pay differentials ten years ago.” Perry was referring to the practice that the University engaged in from 1965 until 1998 of paying the mostly Black and Latino workforce in Chicago $1 or $2 an hour less than the mainly white workers in their downstate campus in Urbana. Local 73’s greatest victory at UIC was forcing equal pay rates for all campuses. “That was a huge fight, like the one we are facing now, and the lesson is clear – we can win if we fight,” she explained.

The other main issue in the negotiations is job security. UIC has replaced hundreds, perhaps over 1000 clerical workers in recent years with non-civil service, non-union staff. There has been a steady stream of layoffs largely as a result of this practice. Mainly these Academic Professional positions have occurred at the Medical Center and the College of Medicine. These are the wealthiest parts of the University, as the numbers of patients has increased almost 300% since 1991 and the growth in research grants has placed UIC as one of the top research institutions in the country. Plus there has been an explosion of enormous donations from wealthy physicians who have made fortunes through the system of for-profit medicine. The union’s demand that the employer make a commitment to end the erosion of union positions is the first priority in these negotiations.

Union Solidarity

Workers were also buoyed by the support they received from the members of Local 73 in two other contracts at UIC. Randy Evans, who works in Environmental Services at the Hospital, came in before his shift and began to help with turning out the vote. Also a member of the bargaining committee for 800 service and maintenance workers, Evans said, “Our negotiations are going nowhere also. We’re getting the same message, ‘Do more with fewer workers and no raises.’” Speaking for the service and maintenance workers, as well as the 400 technical workers in the hospital laboratories, Evans said that they are right behind the clerical workers.

The clerical workers are set to return to meet with management in federal mediation on April 28. Workers will rally outside those negotiations at lunchtime.

Maria Alvarez, a member of the committee and a worker in the Physical Therapy clinic, said, “We are going to win, just like the graduate employees did.” She was referring to the victory scored by the Graduate Employees Organization (GEO) at UIC the previous week. After GEO announced their preparations for a strike, management engaged in a last ditch, 13-hour mediation session. As the student newspaper reported, management “blinked” and made concessions in pay and job security to avoid that strike.

Willie English, a former employee and now staff for SEIU Local 73, joined the final rally to support the GEO, and later commented, “They had only 1400 workers. Local 73 has 1500 clerks, and altogether 2700 members at UIC. We can have confidence that we will win, because in our unity of our numbers, we have strength.”

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