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UIC Workers Beat Back Privatization Threat

By Joe Iosbaker

Chicago, IL – When Willie English heard management say that the bathrooms in his building were dirty, he was insulted. English, a foreman, said, “The number of Building Service Workers in my building is half what it was three years ago, but we take pride in keeping the building clean.”

The story was invented by the bosses at UIC (University of Illinois at Chicago) as an excuse to privatize the custodial work in three buildings on campus. But after workers rallied and lobbied their representatives in the state legislature, management had to agree to a one-year moratorium on outsourcing. This freeze on outsourcing will include existing buildings and those scheduled to open, notably the new College of Medicine Research Building.

State Budget Crisis Forms Backdrop to Contracting Out

The state budget is tight again this year, and the administration at UIC looked to balance their books on the backs of workers. The bosses in Facilities Maintenance know they can pay private cleaning workers $9.00 an hour with few benefits. Building Service Workers at UIC, after years of struggle, make over $14.00 an hour. Already, in a number of new buildings that have opened in the past 9 years on the Chicago campus, outside companies are being used. When they threatened to contract out the existing buildings, English, who is also a union steward with Local 73 SEIU (Service Employees International Unions), said, “It was the foot in the door for privatizing all our jobs. We had to stop it.”

Bill Silver, Division Director for Higher Education for Local 73, explained, “Since 2001, at least 75 positions have been cut from Building Services. Everyone left has been doing two or three peoples’ work. UIC has saved several million dollars a year from these cuts. That’s bad enough. Now they’re threatening the jobs of the people that have already given extra. It’s just not fair.”

In March, management announced their intent to contract out three existing buildings. The announcement came as a surprise to the union. “We had never received any indication from management that there was any problem with the work in those buildings,” said Silver. By late May, the workers had scored a victory by beating back this attack. This came about when Local 73 President Christine Boardman and Bill Silver met with University of Illinois president James Stukel.

That meeting resulted in an agreement to work together to win more money from the state for UIC. One effort will be an amendment to restore funding cut from the previous year’s budget.

The moratorium on outsourcing came because of the strength of the union, shown last year in its efforts to cut bloated administrative salaries; and shown this year in the unity of the workers in opposition to the privatization threat. Local 73 also laid the groundwork when they helped launch a coalition with the Illinois Federation of Teachers to fight for more money for higher education.

Workers and Allies Rally Together

The unity needed to win this agreement came through mass protests by Local 73 workers, together with allies that included other unions. SEIU allies in the state Senate also introduced a bill to ban privatization at state universities.

On April 14, over 120 workers and students marched to the office of UIC Chancellor Manning to deliver a letter opposing the privatization move. Most of these workers were from the second shift, who came in hours early to march. The spirited march gathered strength as it moved across campus, right as students were spilling out of classrooms. An entire writing class fell in line behind the marchers and interviewed dozens of workers about the reasons for the protest.

At the same time, on the Medical Center campus, over 100 Building Service Workers, hospital housekeepers, transporters and other workers showed their solidarity through a ‘Purple Day,’ by wearing purple armbands. “Purple is SEIU’s color, and Purple Day was a big success,” reported Greg Hardison, a steward in Hospital Housekeeping and one of the organizers.

The plan for the armbands was hatched by lunchtime meetings in the hospital cafeteria. “We met right where management could see us,” said steward Randy Evans, after 65 workers finished conferring. “The workers needed to be informed about the union’s efforts against contracting out our jobs.”

Other Unions Under Attack

Mike Malone, business agent for Local 726 of the Teamsters was among those who joined the Local 73 rally and march. Local 726 represents movers and drivers at UIC, and they have been threatened with outsourcing as well. Two weeks earlier, Local 726 workers had joined a picket line called by Teamsters Local 705 to protest scab movers handling UIC work. Local 705 had called an unfair labor practices strike against UIC for contracting out to a private firm that was unionized, which then subcontracted to a scab outfit. As a result of the Teamsters joint picket, UIC has backed off, and the departments that were using the outside movers are having the work done in-house.

Over 50 Teamsters on campus signed a petition in support of Local 73’s fight against privatizing, as did 65 members of the skilled trades unions. They too are being kept out of the new buildings that are going up on campus.

“We Can’t Rest.”

Local 73 steward Tawanda Vaughn addressed the rally at University Hall to, “Thank the students, graduate employees and the other unions that have rallied with us today. We will remember and support you in your struggles as well.”

Jeff McCaster, also a steward, spoke at a lunchtime meeting to report back to workers on the west side of campus. “We can’t rest. We got people moving, we have to keep them moving.” Looking ahead, he went on, “We should bring the work back in-house that has been privatized already. And we should demand they hire back more people.” This idea was warmly received by the second-shift workers in the lunchroom.

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