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Med Center Workers Win Round One

by Joe Iosbaker |
July 30, 1999
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Chicago, IL - When workers at the University of Illinois - Chicago (UIC) go into battle, they fight to win. Over recent years, a spirit has built up on campus, through the course of a series of battles. Earlier this Spring, medical center management wanted to contract out the housekeeping jobs in a new Outpatient Care Center (OCC). Instead, they got militant actions from employees.

With the threat of more actions, the University was forced to reconsider. Four months later, as the clinic building prepares to open on August 1, the jobs will remain union, with union wages and union benefits.

Louis Diaz, a chief steward in Local 73 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) said, "Just like Martin Luther King, we were attacked, but we resisted. King had faith that he would overcome. And sure enough, the University is going to have to back down." After the protests, management knew they could not go through with their plans to have the union jobs replaced by workers making $7.00 an hour or less, with no benefits.

In March, housekeepers and other workers picketed to protest shift changes that violated seniority rights. Local 73 members and others were also responding to the threat to contract out, plus the announcement of 50 other job cuts. Local 73 focused on winning the fight against the first outsourcing. In late June, UIC top management finally conceded the jobs would stay union. But, losses were taken in the negotiations. Local 73 had to accept 10 hour days for all those working in the new building, weakened seniority rules for the selection of those working there, and restrictions on union stewards' access to the building.

Even with this, the outcome is a victory for the workers.

Now, with a win under their belts in this first skirmish, workers in Local 73, with staff and community allies, are promising a fight if the University goes through with larger privatization plans.

Revenue Crisis Announced

On March 3, Chancellor Broski revealed an $8 million revenue shortfall. This is a result of 2 things: cuts in Medicare, plus the HMOs lowering what they'll accept as costs per patient.

Who will pay for this crisis? The bosses want the workers to shoulder the burden. They hired a consultant, the Hunter Group, to advise them how to contract out our jobs. Local 73 steward Randy Evans said, "The Hunter Group has a history of closing hospitals, such as in Detroit, and privatizing public hospitals, which they did in San Francisco."

The Hunter report was released July 8. It recommends the elimination of 275 more jobs, including up to 150 nursing positions in the next two years. But Vice Chancellor Dieter Haussman has worse plans with which to threaten us. He has gone to the multi-millionaires who run the private, "non-profit" Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital and offered to give them UIC Medical Center. Reportedly, they hesitated, asking only if the state politicians in Springfield would back up the deal. Without a doubt, Haussman is now trying to arrange that support. It's certain he'll find partners there, because over the years, the state has been moving to abandon their responsibility to provide health care to poor people in Chicago.

For their part, workers at Rush are also struggling to hold on to gains made in past years. Homer Lampert, steward at Rush in Local 743 of the Teamsters, said, "We're ready to join in support of the brothers and sisters at UIC in the fight to keep their jobs. All healthcare workers face the same enemy: corporate greed. We refuse to let the bosses here put their crisis on our backs, and you should refuse, as well."

Piecemeal and Wholesale: The Bosses Two Tracks of Threats

Privatizing the whole medical center through a merger with Rush would encounter a lot of resistance from department heads and teaching faculty, as well as union workers. So the University is making plans to increase profits one piece at a time. Their first target was to be the housekeeping jobs in the OCC.

The next target will be the jobs of workers performing billing services for the clinics. "We're to be replaced by a university-owned 'outside company' where university-bosses would employ non-university, non-union workers," said Debbie Mercado, a Medical Insurance Specialist in the Internal Medicine Associates office.

There is also word that the Hunter Report will recommend elimination of up to 150 nursing positions in the next two years.

Prepare for More Attacks

Because of corporate domination, healthcare in the US is profit-driven. Even a state-run hospital has to serve the profit drive of the HMOs and insurance companies. Healthcare has become one of the most profitable industries. Many years, they give shareholders 20% rates of return, or better. "This is not possible without driving down workers," stated Sirlena Perry, assistant chief steward in Local 73.

In truth, the Medical Center has been very profitable in recent years. The new OCC was built with a $7 million start-up fund, generated from profits. Now the HMOs and insurance companies are out to wring even more profits from hospitals and clinics. "This country is moving toward a two-class society, the very rich and the very poor," said Barry Hill, housekeeping foreman and bargaining committee member of Local 73. "Our reward for our hard work will be the unemployment line or lower wages, unless we fight to get what we deserve."

Finally, the state of Illinois had a 1.5 billion-dollar budget surplus last year. No cuts should be happening. Instead, the politicians pass what State Senator Miguel Del Valle has called, "... a millionaire's budget."

Perry said she is certain of victory. "We know that when we fight, we can win. And Broski and Haussman know it, too." With this, the stage is set for the next round of struggle at UIC.