Healthcare Workers Are Leading the Largest Strike Ever at the University of Illinois-Chicago

In the face of a deadly pandemic, UIC’s largely Black and Latino hospital workforce is demanding workplace safety and livable wages.

Jeff Schuhrke September 16, 2020

(Photo by Max Herman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Near­ly 5,000 work­ers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go (UIC) are on strike this week in the biggest work stop­page the cam­pus has ever seen. The strik­ers — who are pri­mar­i­ly Black and Lati­no hos­pi­tal work­ers — are fight­ing for bet­ter health­care, work­place safe­ty, liv­able wages and racial jus­tice as the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic rages on.

The walk­out start­ed on Sep­tem­ber 12 when hun­dreds of nurs­es with the Illi­nois Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion (INA) hit the pick­et lines, then quick­ly grew two days lat­er when thou­sands more cler­i­cal, pro­fes­sion­al, tech­ni­cal and main­te­nance work­ers from SEIU Local 73 also went on strike. Both unions have been in the process of nego­ti­at­ing new con­tracts with the uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tion over the past sev­er­al months.

We won’t stop until work­place con­di­tions improve, wages are bet­ter, safe staffing lev­els are imple­ment­ed, PPE [per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment] is uni­ver­sal, and pro­tec­tions from pri­va­ti­za­tion are in place,” Ali­cia Uwu­maro­gie, a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist and SEIU Local 73 mem­ber, recent­ly explained.

Since the pan­dem­ic began, health­care work­ers at UIC have been sound­ing the alarm about inad­e­quate safe­ty mea­sures, includ­ing lack of prop­er PPE and uni­ver­sal test­ing. Accord­ing to Joe Ios­bak­er, a UIC civ­il ser­vice employ­ee with SEIU Local 73, hos­pi­tal man­age­ment ini­tial­ly instruct­ed work­ers not to wear masks, telling them it was a bad look.”

Approx­i­mate­ly 270 UIC health­care work­ers have now con­tract­ed the nov­el coro­n­avirus. At least four of them — two INA mem­bers and two SEIU Local 73 mem­bers, along with one worker’s hus­band — have lost their lives to the virus.

I per­son­al­ly know of at least four [cowork­ers] who were on res­pi­ra­tors, at least one who flat­lined and had to be brought back, and at least four who are now in phys­i­cal ther­a­py to learn how to walk or talk again,” Ios­bak­er said.

While pub­licly prais­ing front­line work­ers as heroes,” uni­ver­si­ty admin­is­tra­tors remain recal­ci­trant in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, con­sis­tent­ly reject­ing union pro­pos­als meant to improve work­place safety.

The amount of respect they’ve shown us at the bar­gain­ing table is less than zero,” INA co-chief stew­ard Paul Pater recent­ly told WBEZ. Our mem­bers died because they didn’t have the PPE they need­ed, and the hos­pi­tal just doesn’t care.”

Instead of nego­ti­at­ing a fair set­tle­ment, work­ers say the admin­is­tra­tion is busi­ly try­ing to under­mine the strikes. First, the uni­ver­si­ty took INA to court to get an injunc­tion pre­vent­ing over 500 out of 1,400 nurs­es from with­hold­ing their labor. Then, admin­is­tra­tors hired out-of-state strike­break­ers to replace strik­ing staff — some of them alleged­ly from states cur­rent­ly list­ed on [the City of Chicago’s Emer­gency Trav­el Order, which requires peo­ple trav­el­ing from cer­tain coro­n­avirus hotspot states to self-quar­an­tine for two weeks. 

UIC is bring­ing in work­ers from states with high­er Covid-19 trans­mis­sion rates to break a strike from a work­force com­plain­ing that man­age­ment risks work­er and patient lives due to incon­sis­tent Covid-19 safe­ty pro­to­col enforce­ment,” said Dian Palmer, pres­i­dent of SEIU Local 73.

The major con­tract issue for INA is secur­ing safer nurse-to-patient ratios to ensure qual­i­ty care, sim­i­lar to what a pro­posed state law would do. The uni­ver­si­ty has repeat­ed­ly reject­ed this proposal.

As a can­di­date in 2018, Illi­nois Gov­er­nor J.B. Pritzk­er told INA mem­bers that if elect­ed, he would sup­port safe staffing leg­is­la­tion. As gov­er­nor, Pritzk­er appoints the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Board of Trustees and serves as an ex-offi­cio trustee himself.

Gov­er­nor Pritzk­er told us if the Safe Patient Lim­its Act came before his desk, he would sign it,” explained Pater. Quite frankly, in this pro­pos­al, it’s on his desk, as he is the ex-offi­cio of the board of trustees to this uni­ver­si­ty. He needs to keep his promise to us.”

For SEIU Local 73, anoth­er major issue in nego­ti­a­tions is mak­ing sure all work­ers are paid at least $15 an hour. Although the Chica­go min­i­mum wage is cur­rent­ly $14 per hour, UIC pays many of its pre­dom­i­nant­ly Black and Lati­no build­ing ser­vice work­ers only $11 to $12.

The uni­ver­si­ty can get away with this because, as a state employ­er, it is exempt from the city’s min­i­mum wage law — a caveat that allows UIC to also pay under­grad­u­ate stu­dent work­ers a sub­min­i­mum wage. Mean­while, Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois pres­i­dent Tim­o­thy Killeen was award­ed a $235,000 raise ear­li­er this year, after hav­ing received bonus­es between 2016 and 2018 total­ing $300,000 and also being pro­vid­ed with a man­sion.

I shouldn’t have to strug­gle from pay­check to pay­check when I’m work­ing every day,” said build­ing ser­vice work­er Sharon Ged­dis. Pres­i­dent Killeen doesn’t have to strug­gle, why should I?”

The INA and SEIU Local 73 strikes are only the lat­est exam­ple of work­er unrest at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois. Last year, 1,500 grad­u­ate work­ers at UIC waged a near­ly three-week strike before win­ning a new con­tract, and UIC fac­ul­ty came with­in a hair’s breadth of also strik­ing. At the Urbana-Cham­paign cam­pus down­state, grad­u­ate work­ers led a suc­cess­ful two-week strike in 2018, and non-tenure-track fac­ul­ty won a first con­tract in 2016 after a two-day strike.

The recent uptick in work­er mil­i­tan­cy at the uni­ver­si­ty is part­ly a response to the administration’s union-bust­ing efforts in the wake of the Supreme Court’s anti-labor Janus deci­sion — which has put all pub­lic sec­tor unions on the defen­sive. Com­bined with the haz­ardous work­ing con­di­tions relat­ed to the pan­dem­ic and the administration’s unwill­ing­ness to com­pro­mise at the bar­gain­ing table, it’s lit­tle won­der why UIC is now expe­ri­enc­ing the biggest strike in its history.

As Palmer put it, UIC work­ers are not only fight­ing for their liveli­hoods, but for their lives, the safe­ty of their fam­i­lies, and the com­mu­ni­ties being served.”

Jeff Schuhrke has been a Work­ing In These Times con­trib­u­tor since 2013. He has a Ph.D. in His­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go and a Master’s in Labor Stud­ies from UMass Amherst. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @JeffSchuhrke

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