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UIC Locks Out Union Workers to Stop Protest

by Joe Iosbaker |
March 23, 2009
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On March 20, starting at 7:00 a.m., 44 customer service representatives began to arrive at the Patient Access department at the UIC (University of Illinois - Chicago) Medical Center wearing matching purple t-shirts. Printed on their shirts in bold letters was the slogan, “Quality for patients, not quantity of registrations.” On the left shoulder was an 8 with a circle and a slash through it.

The department manager, Paula LaGioia, met them as they were taking off their coats. Those that had already swiped in were told to swipe out, while those that hadn’t were told they couldn’t work until they had removed the offending shirts.

The workers were being locked out.

‘Reg Rate’ Doubled

The message on the shirts was a statement against management having nearly doubled the work load three weeks earlier. The ‘reg rate’ had been an average of five patient registrations confirmed and insurance verified every hour of every work day. Without warning, management increased it to 8.

“What they are doing is setting us up so they can get more work done with fewer people, regardless of the consequences to quality or safety,” explained Leti Rios, a worker in the department.

Regina Russell, a union steward in the department, explained, “The workers decided on the t-shirt day on casual Friday. Wearing union messages is a protected activity and we never imagined that management would react this way.” The color of the shirt was chosen because purple is the recognized color of SEIU, their union.

After the workers’ union representative, Jeff Dexter of SEIU Local 73, reached Steve Cox, the director of Labor and Employee Relations, management realized that locking out workers was a big mistake. At 8:30 am, the decision was reversed and the workers who were stuck outside the door of the building were told they could work, but only if they covered their union shirts or turned them inside-out.

Dexter noted, “This is a partial victory, but management is still denying our members’ right to act in a concerted fashion.”

Workers Fighting Mad

If UIC thought that the workers would be intimidated, they guessed wrong. At lunch time the sidewalk in front of the building was the scene of a lively picket line, called as an emergency response to the lock out. The workers came out of the building, proudly showing their matching shirts and some workers that had not been part of the campaign joined them, donning shirts at the rally. The workers were joined by the Graduate Employees Organization, as well as other activists from the campus coalition against budget cuts.

The lunchtime protest ended with a march to the lawn outside Paula LaGioia’s office, where workers chanted, “Hey Paula, you know, you locked us out, we still won’t go!”

UIC Balances Budget on Backs of Workers, Students, Community

The budget crisis at UIC has brought a number of attacks around the campus. Earlier in March, a coalition of affected groups came together. Calling itself UIC-ABC (United In Campaign Against Budget Cuts), and spearheaded by the GEO, they launched a round of protests, including several rallies with students and employees criticizing the administration about how the cutbacks have affected them.

At a teach-in held on Feb. 25, Sarita Heer of GEO explained, “We have lost 150 graduate employees since last semester, who were not rehired for the new spring semester because of the cuts.”

And at the speak-out held on Mar. 18, Tawanda Vaughn, a Building Service Worker (BSW) and a leader in Local 73, said, “Thirty Building Service Workers have been cut - one in ten of all BSWs.” These workers were ‘900 hour’ employees, a temporary position, but working side by side with the permanent employees. According to Vaughn, “Every remaining worker has to work harder to cover their areas.“

At the same event, Lindsey Martin, a first year medical student, spoke passionately about the Family Medicine and Women’s Health clinic run by UIC in the Latino neighborhood of Pilsen, and now slated for closure in June. The coalition, including the Movimiento Estudiantils de Aztlan (MEsA), LUCHA and the Pilsen Alliance, an organization from the heavily immigrant community, rallied on Mar. 4 to save the clinic from the chopping block. “Without the accessible preventive care provided to the low income patients, I fear someone among those patients will die,” warned Martin.

The next step for the coalition will be putting pressure on the state legislators in the budget process. Lobby days and visits to legislators’ offices will continue the fight started in the protests on campus and on the streets around UIC. The coalition has an answer to the budget crisis. According to Amber Cooper of GEO, “Not only do the administrators who earn more than $100,000 need to take a 10% pay cut immediately, but also legislators need to go back to properly funding UIC like they did years ago and return UIC to truly being a ‘public’ university.”