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Chicago Hospital Workers:

"We Demand Wage Parity and Job Security"

by Joe Iosbaker |
October 1, 2000
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Chicago, IL - Local 73 of the Service Employees International Union is heading into a fight. Over 600 workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) have a contract expiring on Sep. 30. Workers have high hopes, but management looks ugly. UIC has an agenda of management rights, contracting out, temp workers, speedup and increased workload.

As workers look across the bargaining table, what do they see? The state of Illinois has record high levels of revenue. The UIC Medical Center has twice as many patients as 10 years ago. Management salaries have ballooned while employees have shouldered more work. While the hospital is under terrific pressure from managed care companies, the bosses have decided to shift their crisis onto our backs.

Over the past several years, UIC has launched a series of attacks on its medical center employees. Hundreds of jobs have been cut, including transporters, housekeepers, clerks and other support staff. Seniority rights of building service workers and housekeepers have been undermined as managers try to get the cleaning done with too few people.

In March of 1999, management announced that housekeeping jobs in the new Outpatient Care Center were being contracted out to a low-wage, private company. There were threats to privatize the medical center. Only through the joint action of Local 73, the Illinois Nurses Association, and community forces such as Jobs With Justice, the Campaign for Better Health Care, and the Chicago delegation of state senators was this threat beaten back.

Greg Hardison, a housekeeper and an alternate member of the Local 73 bargaining committee, had this to say, "Right now, people are concerned about our job security. We need our seniority rights restored, and an end to the threats of contracting out. At the same time, people are hopeful that, with all the money being made and spent around here, we can get good raises."

Crisis and struggle at UIC

The medical center has been the scene of a big fight since the fall of 1998, when the hospital came up $8 million short of what they forecast. This was a result of federal government cuts and HMO's demanding lower rates for services. The for-profit healthcare companies have made record profits in recent years, but their system is in crisis. In order to rebuild the profits of their businesses, the HMO billionaires have to deny services to patients and drive down costs. In turn, the bosses at UIC look to make up the strains on their budget at the expense of the people at the bottom of their organization - the workers.

The favorite targets of managers at the UIC Medical Center are the housekeepers. Although contracting-out of housekeeping was beaten back in the spring of 1999, the big bosses at UIC still hold on to this goal. Another attack on the unionized workers will come at some point. Meanwhile, they have cut the staffing levels in the hospital and are expecting the remaining housekeepers to take on more and more work. When workers can't be pushed any further, the quality of care suffers. Then management uses part-timers, but refuses to make them permanent.

More recently, job cuts and use and abuse of part-timers is happening in building services throughout the Chicago campus. This is creating the need for an even bigger fight back.

Randy Evans, a steward and member of the Local 73 bargaining committee, put it this way. "No matter how hard we work, we can't work as cheap as they want. The bosses at UIC are like the Terminator - they just keep coming after us. Their goal is $7 an hour housekeepers, without benefits." Regarding the current negotiations and the long-term fight with UIC, Steward Evans said, "This contract fight has to show them the strength we have in our unity."

Local 73 and the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) fought together over the past year, scoring a series of victories over management. Various schemes to privatize the hospital and the clinics were beaten back, and the INA got tremendous gains in their contract negotiations. This shows that with a concerted fight, victories are possible.

Service and medical workers: Unite to fight

The University has another dirty little secret. They have a racist pay differential between Chicago and the other campuses downstate. In Chicago, the workforce is mostly Black and Latino, while downstate, the workforce is mostly white. The same job titles exist throughout the system, but those downstate campuses are paid more. Workers here are demanding parity. In August and September, several hundred people attended meetings to prepare for negotiations.

Workers of all nationalities - Black, Mexican, Puerto Rican, Philippino, and white - must come together to win wage parity, to end the abuse of part-timers, to restore seniority rights, and end the threat of contracting out.