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Chicago Workers Win Big

Racist Pay Difference Defeated
by Joe Iosbaker |
October 1, 2001
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Chicago, IL - A year of struggle has brought success for workers in Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). On Sept. 17 and 19, nearly 400 workers came out to overwhelmingly ratify a new contract.

"We stuck to our guns, and came up with the best contract we've seen!" said Willie English, a building service foreman and member of the negotiating committee. He summed it up, "It was a terrific victory after a long, hard-fought battle."

The negotiating committee successfully rallied the members in a fight against discrimination. The biggest issue for the negotiations was the wage differences between UIC and the downstate campuses of the University of Illinois system. Most of the 720 members of the Service and Maintenance unit of Local 73 at the University of Illinois in Chicago are Black or Latino. Most of the University of Illinois employees who work downstate are white.

Other issues in the contract negotiations included basic seniority rights and job security. Local 73 made important gains on both of these as well.

But it is the achievement of equality with the downstate workers that will result in raises of as much as 30% over the 5 years that the contract is in force.

Historic victory

Winning this contract takes on more significance when one looks back two years. In the spring of 1999, hospital housekeepers were faced with privatization of their jobs in the new Outpatient Care Center. Top managers announced that the housekeepers were "the worst ever seen," and that they were "high maintenance." What was really going on was a drive by the UIC bosses to make the hospital and clinics more profitable for the HMOs and insurance companies. They wanted to make up financial losses from managed care by taking from the housekeepers.

Local 73 beat back that attack, but it was just the opening bell. Ever since, UIC has tried one privatization scheme after another. Bosses held secret talks to attempt a big merger of UIC, Rush-Presbyterian, and Cook County hospitals. The bosses tried to declare the Outpatient Care Center a private corporation. When both of these were beaten back, they resorted to separating the hospital from the Outpatient Care Center. This was defeated, but then their new scheme was to separate the medical center from UIC. Local 73, along with the Illinois Nurses Association and others fought each of these measures.

In the last year, Local 73 began an offensive, which started with organizing the Marriott food services in the student buildings. With the new Service and Maintenance contract, the local has come from behind to win.

Lessons from the fight

1st Lesson

Unity. There were moments in the past year when cynicism threatened to weaken our fighting strength. Many workers couldn't see that the union officers, staff, and the negotiating committee were serious about the battle with management. "They didn't understand the power of the union, when workers really stick together," said Greg Hardison, steward in housekeeping.

Management got a rude awakening when over 400 employees and supporters marched in June of this year. Everywhere on campus, non-union workers, those in other unions, administrators, faculty and students all were talking about the dynamo that Local 73 had become. By coming out in such numbers, the membership had proved that they were unified, and weren't going to take it no more!

2nd Lesson
Alliances with the community. UIC has been run for 35 years by forces from outside Chicago - suburban and downstate, mainly Republican politicians. Communities surrounding UIC, mostly Black and Mexicano people, have had very little input into how UIC's wealth is used. Local 73 has been building alliances with community activists, organizations, and leaders in recent years.

The key alliances have been with Black and Latino politicians, such as state senators Miguel del Valle and Donne Trotter, along with state representative Constance Howard. These progressive politicians came into office during and following the wave of the electoral reform movements of the 1980's that produced Chicago's first Black mayor, Harold Washington. They helped lead the fight against UIC's expansion and racist mistreatment of the community. Their joining together with SEIU made a powerful team.

3rd Lesson
Seeing the bigger picture. Local 73 has come to understand, in the words of union steward and hospital housekeeper, Randy Evans, "UIC is part of a master plan to reshape the West Side of Chicago. This is being done to the detriment of the poor and working people that live here." This "Harvard on Halsted" movement also harms most students at UIC. The "Urban Mission" that launched Circle Campus (UIC's old name) was supposed to provide Chicago Public School students with a chance at a four-year education leading to graduate and professional school.

However, the attrition rate of these mostly minority students is so high that most who enter UIC do not graduate.

The union recognizes our common cause with students fighting tuition increases; with graduate employees demanding to be recognized as a union; with residents of public housing in the area who resisting the destruction of their homes; and with the non-union employees, also mainly Black and Latino, demanding opportunities for advancement within UIC.

The Illinois Black Caucus is laying plans for legislative hearings at UIC. These hearings are still pending, because while one issue has been settled, there are many others that need to be addressed.

The struggle continues

The contract was settled days before a Sept. 12 Board of Trustees meeting that was to have been the scene of another massive rally. Religious activists were coming together to put pressure there. The coalition Jobs With Justice helped bring everyone - workers, students, community, and religious activists - together into an ongoing alliance.

Cassandra Fuller, negotiating committee member and food service worker, said, "It was great help that Senators Trotter and del Valle were coming out for us. Everybody knew that UIC has this money. The legislators appropriate the funds to them, and we were being denied equal pay." The threat of involvement by the legislators pushed management to act. "Otherwise, we would have still been sitting at the negotiation table," said Fuller.

One issue that remains between the union and management is the employers' use of temporary workers. Nearly 1000 people work at UIC as "extra-help" or "900 hour employees." The struggle for these workers will continue. One building service worker, Elmo Alejandro, commented, "It's not fair the way these workers work for so long and aren't offered benefits."

Over the past year, management and Local 73 have been locked in combat. Local 73 and its president, Christine Boardman, are committed to continuing the struggle. "Off of this contract, we want to increase the number of stewards as well as build more political muscle," said Bill Silver, chief negotiator. "We have to stop UIC's abuse of temporary workers."

The settlement of this contract represents a real step forward for UIC workers, but if the past practice of UIC management is a guide, this is a temporary truce in an ongoing war.