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Contract Victory at UIC

By Joe Iosbaker

Tom Terranova speaking at contract rally. Bullhorn. SEIU t-shirt

Chicago, IL – “We have never had so much respect from so many,” proclaimed Sirlena Perry. “And,” she said further, “we earned it.”

Perry was referring to the victory in the contract campaign for clerical workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). She is a leader in the negotiating committee and assistant chief steward for Local 73 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

This respect came from union members, as well as non-union employees, after Local 73 and management settled contract negotiations. In early November, after bargaining for over a year, the committee brought a contract proposal to the members for ratification. Over 450 came out to vote, and only 1% voted against it. This was because the contract included increased job security and good wages.

As Tom Terranova, chief negotiator put it, “This is a victory in a very tough budget time. We were able to get what we’ve got only because we held out and fought hard for 14 months.” Because of the continued crisis in the economy, Terranova prepared the members, “In order to do well over the next two years of this contract, we have to keep doing what we’ve been doing, and more people have to get involved.”

The contract spans four years. The amount each worker will receive varies – some could see as much as a 24.5% raise. Union employees get two raises a year, on the contract date and on their anniversary date. For the 2005 and 2006 contract years, only the anniversary date raises have been decided. The contract raises may yet have to be negotiated (a wage reopener) if the state budget is in crisis again.

UIC: A Union Fortress

One of the reasons that the contract took so long to settle was because the union had to fight on two fronts – for a contract and against job cuts. Balancing the budget on the backs of workers happens in every state in times of economic troubles. A standard operating procedure at UIC has been job eliminations for support staff.

Local 73 made a big stand against job cuts. Negotiations were delayed at several points while the union focused on protecting jobs. The main task was forcing the university to chop from the top. The governor took the University of Illinois administration to task for a bloated bureaucracy, and eventually we forced the top administration to freeze their own salaries for a second year in a row. This freed up hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the pool of funds being bargained over was larger.

The UIC workers were able to make their fight a social question. This compelled politicians to take our stand. “The best of these elected officials have become our allies,” said Perry. “Our lobbying victories showed that we need COPE.” COPE is the Committee On Political Education. At the contract ratification meetings, over 250 clerical workers signed up to contribute to COPE.

Second, every job cut was reviewed by a negotiating team, including Tom Terranova, following the affected workers until they were placed in vacancies. The approach taken by the local resulted in only a handful of actual layoffs.

“The best thing we did was fighting around the job cuts during contract negotiations, “ said Perry. “We showed the members that we are in this fight for the long haul.” The contract negotiating committee helped organize the resistance to the cuts; then flowed right into the battle over wages and contract language. While describing the situation, Sirlena Perry said, “management thought they had us over a barrel. We demanded no job cuts, and they expected us to be humble in wage negotiations.”

Wage Gains Despite State Crisis

Instead, the workers demanded a fair contract, including keeping up with the workers in Urbana. At the downstate campus of the university, union clerical workers had a contract that continued through the last two years, and so their wages had moved higher than the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Luz Martinez, a new activist in the union and member of the bargaining committee, spoke up in her first negotiations. “We deserve a good raise. Our workloads have increased in the clinics. The top administrators have benefited; we should too.”

When management came across with the wage offer, Martinez said that the workers in the clinics thanked her. She told them they were the ones who should be thanked, for taking action for themselves.

Martinez summed it up this way: “The customer service representatives in the clinics had not been very involved in the union before this contract fight. What made the difference is more people got informed. When we didn’t get a raise last year, they realized we had to fight for ourselves. They had to come out, to get involved, to win this.”

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