Giant Slayers? SEIU Takes on the University

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States, a fascinating David and Goliath drama is unfolding
on the University of Illinois campus, with little fanfare or
media attention.
In the far corner, wearing the orange and blue trunks, we
have the University of Illinois, a powerful bruiser, the
largest employer in Champaign County, with a battery of
lawyers and personnel experts, considerable political
influence (though never enough, it seems, to get a decent
budget from the state), its own police force, and a loyal
faculty always ready to take orders from the administration.
In the near corner, wearing the purple trunks with
the clasped black and white fists, we have Local 73 of the
Service Employees International Union (SEIU), representing
some of the lowest paid employees on campus.
At a moment when most unions seem too petrified to
call a strike, the SEIU membership, consisting of maids,
janitors, and food service workers, has voted overwhelmingly
(90%) to authorize a strike, if necessary, to save their
union and prevent further erosion of their living standards.
Some people have guts.
The fight is over wages, understaffing, and equal contracts.
In the last contract cycle, service workers agreed to
forego cost of living increases. This means the pay has
remained stagnant, as prices have risen. The 2.5% increase
that the university has proposed is less than inflation and
will prevent workers from making up the real income lost
over the past several years.
The University has also proposed different benefits for
food and building service workers. This would result in
greater benefit disparities between the two groups of
workers. To their credit, SEIU members have refused to be
divided. The better-paid workers with more benefits are
supporting those with less. If the University tries to
enforce such disparities, they will strike.
Aware of the disruption and financial hardship it will
bring its members, the union is trying desperately to avoid
a strike. They have worked for almost two years without a
contract and have been trying to negotiate a new one for
the last fourteen months.
For a long time, the university administration seemed
uninterested. After refusing to schedule another meeting with
the federal mediator, the overwhelming authorization vote
and the preparations for a strike seem to have encouraged
them to reconsider. A meeting has been set with SEIU and the
mediator on November 26, but unless the university becomes
a little more motivated, the strike is still a very real possibility.
The University, of course, is banking on a state law that
restricts the campus workers to a maximum of three days
for the strike. There is a lot of sympathy for SEIU on campus,
but the Graduate Employees Union (GEO) can’t strike to help the service workers, because the GEO’s contract forbids
this, as do those of many of the other campus unions.
Yet, it would be a mistake for the University to assume
that other unions will not find all sort of ways to support
SEIU. Most Americans still love an underdog and one can
only hope that Local 73 will get a lot of help. Invisible
bonds of solidarity, between unionized truck drivers, maintenance
workers, teaching assistants, and even the orderloving
faculty, are likely to translate into significant support.
If SEIU strikes, they hope to shut down the campus.
Urbana liberals hoping to sneak into their office and classroom
buildings are likely to be confronted by picketing janitors
and food workers–perhaps even some of their own more
unruly faculty colleagues. Walking most places on campus
may entail crossing SEIU picket lines—a moral dilemma for
faculty and staff who still have consciences. The fact is we
would all be wise to support SEIU workers. An effective strike
could settle things quickly; a weaker one is likely to simply
prolong the conflict or produce more strikes later.
There will be no shortage of $200,000-a-year Finance
professors (and $300,000-a-year administrators) happy to
push aside a $20,000-a-year cafeteria worker who is trying
to put some food on the table for her kids, but many of
those hopelessly liberal humanists and social scientists
(not to mention their underpaid teaching assistants) are
more likely to side with the cafeteria worker. The 800 student
workers who toil alongside SEIU members in residence
halls and elsewhere represent something of a wild
card. But many of these students likely come from bluecollar
backgrounds and if the strike occurs, the administration
may be surprised how many of them also sympathize
with union colleagues.
One of the most remarkable things about this pending
conflict is how little attention it has generated in progressive
circles. The other issues crowding this one out—yet
another round of black face minstrelsy, the desperate
efforts to hold onto the University’s offensive mascot, and
the striking threats to academic freedom inherent in the
University’s new Academy on Capitalism and Limited
Government – are all vital, but so is this strike.
So, if you support the legal right to strike as one cornerstone
of democracy, if you still tend to root for the spunky
little guy in any fight, or if you still believe that every working
family deserves a decent standard of living, then you’ll
want to support Local 73 in this scrap. You can do so in
many ways. Write University of Illinois administrators,
expressing your support for the workers and urging them
to avoid the strike by compromising with the union. Write
to the Daily Illini and the News-Gazette to publicize the
issues in the strike and to indicate your support. You can
help picket or make a donation. Discuss the pending strike
with students, colleagues, and others who want to understand
the issues. Above all, follow your conscience. And, if
the strike occurs, don’t cross the picket line.
The “smart money” might be on the big guy in the
orange and blue trunks, but I’m putting mine on the little
guy in purple.

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