Strike Averted! Workers of SEIU Local 73 Ratify Contract with University Administration

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SEIU workers and allies at the August 8 rally on the University of Illinois Quad

From November of 2018 until August, 2019, the workers of Service Employees International Union Local 73 were negotiating a new contract with the UIUC administration. In July, members of the local overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike. Formal notice of intent to strike was filed on August 8, after a rally on campus.

Local 73 is split into two bargaining units, Building Service Workers (BSW), and Food Service Workers (FSW). BSW cleans and maintain the buildings and outdoor areas on campus, while FSW feeds the thousands of students, faculty, and staff that pass daily through the university’s dining halls and cafes. BSW and FSW represent about 500 and 200 workers, respectively.

With the threat of a strike looming, which would have been the sixth strike in six years within the University of Illinois system, representatives of the union and the administration held another bargaining session on August 9. With the help of a federal mediator, they reached a Tentative Agreement (TA) on wages and the other remaining bargaining issues. Recently, a majority of the union membership ratified the TA, making it their new contract and avoiding a strike.

The publicly stated strike day target was student move-in day on campus, Thursday, August 22. This was a date purposefully chosen to inflict the maximum amount of disruption and chaos. Move-in day is one of the busiest days of the academic year, when the extraordinary work of SEIU members becomes even more essential. As Local 73 Chapter 119 President and head cook Dena Gary told me before the ratification vote, “the university persists in ignoring the value of our work.” Should negotiations have continued to stall, Dena and hundreds of other SEIU members would have had “no choice but to try to demonstrate just how valuable it is,” by striking.

The details of the new contracts are still emerging. We know that there will be at least a 39-cent yearly wage increase. Parking fee increases will be delayed until January, and lump sums of $150 will be given in the first and third years of the contracts, which each last three years.

Perhaps more important right now than the details of both contracts looms this question: how did it take SEIU workers almost going on strike on what is one of their most critical workdays to get a fair contract offer? I will argue that, in provoking a near-strike, the administration made the same mistake they have been making in contract negotiations at the U of I campuses for half a decade: they disrespected SEIU workers both at and away from the bargaining table.

At the table, the administration refused to talk about key issues. While wages, for example, were an important bargaining issue, this was partly because they were a mandatory (legally required) bargaining subject. As Ricky Baldwin, an SEIU Local 73 representative, explained, there were many other subjects that the union wanted to negotiate, but the university had no legal obligation to do so over these permissive (optional) bargaining subjects, which are sometimes referred to as their “management rights.” Thus membership positions on these “permissive” subjects are sometimes not directly expressable at the bargaining table. However, that doesn’t mean these issues weren’t kept in mind during negotiations.

Chapter President Gary talked about how disrespect on the job was affecting negotiations about other, sometimes not directly related issues. “They expect you to do several jobs with a smile on your face, but they can’t even tell me hello when I clock in,” she explained. Managers “sometimes call us bottom feeders, they just forget where they came from.” Baldwin agreed, adding that “a wage increase offer is taken differently if offered in the context of daily increasing stresses at work.”

Racism and sexism also contribute to the disrespect and discomfort felt by some workers. Gary felt that “racism and sexism at work is very blunt, it is not hidden.” Baldwin told me that there are many supervisors, for instance, “who really don’t like when women speak up for themselves or speak their minds.” In one instance, a new employee came in drunk to work and began to racially harass his coworkers. When the employee was fired, management only cited his showing up to work drunk as the reason, failing to condemn his racist comments. Even after SEIU asked repeatedly for such statements, workers have yet to be reassured that this racist behavior will not be tolerated.

Throughout negotiations, the two bargaining units also had their own, separate issues of disrespect. BSW faced (and still faces) a continued crisis of understaffing. For example, the Facilities and Services Department of BSW should normally have about 350 on staff. Currently, the department employs about 250. The increased workloads decrease workplace safety and increase stress. Yet the administration did not allow direct negotiations over hiring plans.

Meanwhile, FSW faces quarterly layoffs. During the breaks in instruction, all workers in the unit go without paychecks, benefits, and civil service protections. Workers are unable to apply for unemployment benefits during these times, as they expect to be back to work shortly. Without a source of income, some seek temporary employment under any terms they can manage in BSW, driving down BSW wages in the long term. Some protections were added to the new contract to ease the summer layoffs, but this issue remains by and large unaddressed.

The failure of the university administration to address the disrespect felt by SEIU workers at and away from the bargaining table was then the primary reason for the near-total breakdown of negotiations. The reality that addressing disrespect is the key to smoother negotiations is made clearer when we look at the negotiations between the administration and the members of the Non-Tenure Faculty Coalition Local 6546 AFT/IFT/AAUP. These negotiations lasted from March to June, 2019, when a TA was reached and later ratified by union membership. That the issues of disrespect faced by non-tenure track faculty were given some merit and redress eased these negotiations.

I spoke to Heather McLeer, a lecturer in English and NTFC’s Chief Steward. She told me that the NTFC’s new contract’s guarantees of professional development fund access, financial rewards for long-term university employment, clearly defined terms of work and promotion structures, and access to the library and university email accounts after retirement were all about respect. “When I was talking with members about some of our bargaining priorities … a common trend I noticed was that the issues they cared about were linked in a lot of ways to how they felt valued as faculty members—and not just as teachers but as researchers,” she said. Access to professional development and research funds was viewed as an “index of how valued they were” by the administration.

This prioritization of the issues of respect for NTFC in negotiations, alongside their neglect in the SEIU negotiations, is likely related to the fact that SEIU workers are hourly wage workers, while NTFC’s workers are salaried faculty. Judging from this round of negotiations, it appears that the administration looks at its hourly wage workers and assumes that just this—their hourly wages—is all that they care about. This is far from the truth, however. Workers in SEIU and NTFC, like workers everywhere, prioritize respect and for their work to be valued. Wages are just a small part of how respect and the value of labor can be measured.

The Graduate Employees’ Organization, which went out on a two-week strike in Spring, 2018, is likely going to reopen its negotiations with the university over wages this January. If the administration wants to avoid tanking more negotiations, it should stop thinking about its employees in terms of costs and abstract figures to be accounted for in the budget, and start thinking about them as human beings that deserve respect and dignity for their labor.

Nick Goodell is a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he studied history and philosophy. He co-hosted The People’s History Hour on 104.5 WRFU for two years, and currently organizes with the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Central Illinois Jobs with Justice, and CU Food Not Bombs.

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