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Illinois Workers Say:

We Want a Fair Contract and We Want It Now

by Joe Iosbaker |
July 1, 2003
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Woman on bullhorn
Speaking out at a UIC rally for a fair contract. (Fight Back! News/Joanne Misnik)

Chicago, IL - In front of the offices of James Stukel, president of the University of Illinois, the lunchtime crowd swelled. Soon, 100 workers were marching around, singing and chanting. On the bullhorn, Jeff McCaster, a building service worker and union steward with Local 73 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), shouted, “That man sits up there, he has plush carpet everywhere. He probably has it in the bathroom.” The picketers laughed in response.

Altogether, over 200 people rallied Sept. 10 demanding a decent contract for the clerical workers. These workers had gone without a contract for the past year. As a result of the state budget crisis, 1100 workers under the contract did not receive their cost of living raise.

The workers were angry. Not only had they lived with the hardship of not having a raise, but every worker at UIC has stories of arrogant managers and abuse that they have to put up with in the course of doing their jobs. Getting a decent raise is a show of respect. Irma Correa, a customer service representative working in the pediatrics clinic, carried a sign that read, “Stukel – Stop dissin’ and start payin’!”

Budget Cuts Used To Attack Workers

This year’s contract negotiations took place during the current economic crisis. With less money in state taxes being collected, there have been cuts to the budgets of all state agencies.

Yet the state still has plenty of money to give tax breaks to the rich and corporations. When the state agencies get their budgets cut, they try to balance them on the backs of the workers. This has been true at UIC as well.

The members of the union’s negotiating committee refuse to accept management’s claims of poverty. “All you have to do is look at all the new buildings on campus to know they have plenty of money,” said Glenda Searcy, bargaining committee member, at an Aug. 29 meeting attended by over 100 clericals.

In fact, President Stukel stated in his Sept. 5 ‘open letter’ to the campus, “We have a bigger budget than ever, but significantly less money from our single most important source, the state of Illinois.” In response, Shirley McIntosh, bargaining committee member from Patient Accounts said, “That letter said what working people have known all along.”

There are three other sources of revenue for UIC. Number one, research money, mainly from the National Institutes for Health. Much of this research is going to help medical corporations make more profits. This is another example of corporate welfare - the federal government pays for research, and then the results of that research are provided for free to the drug companies and biotech companies.

A second source of university revenue is patient care. Five years ago, by cutting staff and requiring massive overtime from nurses, the hospital set out to make itself more profitable. After protests from the nurses and Local 73, hospital management had to reverse some of the cuts. Improved staffing brought improved patient satisfaction; so more physicians are having in-patient procedures for their private clients done at UIC. The hospital is making more money than ever. Also, the clinics have more than doubled their patient visits each year. In the end, costs are down and business is up at the hospital, which makes the HMO’s and insurance companies happy to hand out bonuses to the physicians.

A third source of revenue is real estate. Take for example the South Campus Development (a mix of dormitories, private houses and commercial buildings). To get the land for it, the city and university teamed up against the surrounding communities of poor folks. Eminent domain law was used to get the land for UIC, who then turned it over to the private developers. It’s now worth $800 million, and UIC reportedly gets a 10 to 30% cut of the money.

When one of their ‘profit centers’ needs an infusion of cash, the Board of Trustees is happy to waive the rules which say that funds from one source can’t be used for another. But when it comes to providing raises for employees, they say these rules are written in stone.

Injury to One, Injury to All

Every worker knows UIC is doing fine, even with the state budget crisis. Given this, the negotiating committee has been united in demanding good raises.

The negotiating committee is fighting for every group of employees. One example is those workers on the top step in their classifications. These most senior employees got the short end of the stick last year – a wage freeze and no step increase. Fifty workers were affected.

Another example is library techs, who just voted to join the union. Sixty-two library techs watched for ten years as union workers got raises while they remained stuck in the mud. In a show of solidarity, the negotiating committee refused to leave these two groups behind, insisting on getting their demands as part of an overall settlement.

Sirlena Perry, assistant chief steward and bargaining committee member, said, “We have been patient. We are united to keep fighting, but we want a fair contract, and we want it now.”

Tom Terranova, negotiator for the clerical unit, spoke at the rally, saying, “We’re close, but not there yet.” Calling on the members to keep fighting, he laid out, “If we want to win job security and the raises we deserve, we have to keep pressure on the university. This rally is the biggest action we’ve had in the 12 months of these negotiations. We have to be prepared for the next action to be even bigger so that management knows we’re serious.”

No Going Back! Wage Parity With Urbana!

For 35 years, the University of Illinois administration paid workers at their downstate campus more than workers at the Chicago campus. This was because, when UIC was built in the 1960’s, most of the workers were African American, Mexicano or Puerto Rican, while most workers at the downstate campus in Urbana were white. It took a mighty struggle for Local 73 to win equal pay for the Chicago employees.

Last year, Local 73’s contract at UIC expired. However, the workers at Urbana had two more years in their contract. Now Chicago workers are staring at the prospect of falling behind their Urbana co-workers. “You’re not going back,” said Willie English, a union steward from the service and maintenance unit, as he addressed the crowd. “You’ve had a long fight, but it’ll be worth it when you win the respect you deserve.”