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UIC Workers Fight Privatization

by Joe Iosbaker |
April 2, 2004
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Woman in hat at podium. Local 73 on banner
Wanda ‘Smiley’ Neely, Local 73 steward and a leader of UIC workers, blasts plans for privatization. (Fight Back! News/Leonard Simpson)

Chicago, IL - Since the economy tanked nearly three years ago, workers at the University of Illinois have put up with doing more with less. Building Service Workers have been hit especially hard. There are 80 fewer of them today than there was in 2001.

In addition, the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) campus has had a building boom. Each new building that goes up comes with a poison apple for the Building Service Workers, represented by Local 73 SEIU (Service Employees International Union). Management has hired outside companies to clean them, over the union’s objections.

A line was crossed when the bosses in facilities maintenance tried to privatize the work in existing buildings. A labor-management meeting was called, and over 30 workers showed up two hours early for their shift to pack it. When Greg Parran of UIC Labor and Employee Relations walked in, Bill Silver, division director for Local 73, said, “Tell these workers your plans to take their jobs.” With that, according to Wanda ‘Smiley’ Neely, a union steward, management was so stunned “Their jaws dropped to the floor.”

This action served to put management on notice that they can’t privatize these jobs without a fight.

State Budget Cuts Threaten Workers

Clerical workers at UIC won a big victory last fall. Local 73 SEIU, representing over 1000 employees, won a contract with very good raises. Given the economic crisis, that was a real accomplishment.

Now, Governor Blagojevich is proposing a budget that threatens to rob some of the sweetness from this victory.

The new contract guarantees step increases each year. However, the overall contract raise is pegged to the amount that politicians in Springfield give the university for wages. This year, the governor’s proposal is 2% less than last year.

There is another attack that state workers have been hit with. The state pension funds are being underfunded. Money in these funds is already promised to workers when they retire, but the state is borrowing from them, claiming it will repay them at a later date. Thousands of workers could find themselves without their guaranteed retirement.

Illinois has one of the worst problems with this in the country, because our state pension fund has only 54% of the assets needed to pay its future benefits, a shortfall of almost $35 billion.

Going even further, now the state wants workers to contribute 4% more each year to our pensions. This is a defacto pay cut.

The governor says he has to do these things because he promised “No new taxes.” But he also promised he wouldn’t balance the budget on the backs of the state’s workers. And our pensions are benefits that are guaranteed to us; the politicians are required by law to adequately fund them. These commitments they can break, and yet they can’t raise taxes? Why not? Because the rich refuse to pay their share, and politicians of both parties dance to the tune of the wealthy.

Local 73 is taking part in a coalition of higher education unions and students. A lobby day was held on March 24, where a message was sent to the governor’s mansion: “Workers won’t take a back seat to the rich and the powerful.”

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