Thursday, April 21, 2011

SEIU stands up at UI

I may have mentioned before how proud I am to have worked for ACORN. I am also proud to work for SEIU once again, this time for ass-kicking Local 73 in Illinois and Indiana.

Recently I had the honor of working with approximately 750 building service and food service workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who were fighting back against an Administration that has been crying broke and at the same time handing out fat, juicy raises to top administrators and coaches, raising tuition every year, raising student fees, and dropping millions on pet projects. (Did they think we wouldn't notice?)

But we did, we stuck together, we fought back, and we won!

We didn't get everything we wanted. In fact, the raises we got will most likely not even keep up with inflation. But the University tried to scare us into accepting a pay freeze by threatening cuts. They threatened random drug tests, cutting out seniority provisions that allowed some workers to put in for vacant positions in their departments, and instituted numerous unilateral changes while refusing -- illegally -- to negotiate. The union had to file three Unfair Labor Practice charges against the University, and was set to file another by the end.

At the beginning, workers expected little. The recession and State budget "crunch" (created in part by an abject failure to tax the wealthiest Illinoisans, and in part by the recession) combined to lay a wet blanket over their hopes to keep up with inflation and their anger at being given the big shaft for two years previous (0% the last year of the last contract).

But the workers surprised themselves and all observers (including me) and rejected the "Zero Contract" in large numbers.

They had seen a UI President and Chancellor resign in scandal and still continue to earn $300,000 and $250,000, respectively, at UI. They had seen consultants paid over $1 million to teach University administrators "planning to plan." (What, after all, were the administrators' job qualifications in the first place?) And they had seen the University hire a new president at 37.5% more than the previous president pulled down -- not counting his annually increasing $45,000 bonus, the house provide by the UI, the condo the UI bought him in Chicago, the car, the driver, and an executive assistant raking in over 81% more than the previous president's assistant... not to mention a 9.5% tuition hike in the summer of 2010, and various increases in student fees and costs. (UI later raised tuition another 6.9%.)

At the same time, 3000 SEIU members at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC) had been fighting for a contract for over a year. A threatened strike had been averted in August, and the little birds were saying UIC workers were finally getting some movement toward some kind of raises. They did. In November 2010, UIC members of SEIU approved a contract including significant raises.

SEIU members in Urbana-Champaign immediately began requesting mediation to settle their contract after rejecting the "Zero Contract." The University refused for two months.

By the time they finally agreed, the workers were thoroughly fed up and had voted to strike if the bargaining team called them out. During mediation, the workers only grew angrier as the University stalled, lied, and finally offered chickenfeed. We picketed every negotiation session from December right through the winter months into April -- "in the wind, in the rain, in the heat, in the cold," we chanted ("What do you want? A contract... became ... "What do you want? To strike!") And in the end, the University realized we were not bluffing.

Management began handing out propaganda to the workers, which only pissed them off more. They started to threaten the workers, which just fueled the fire. In the last few days they started bringing in fruit and vegetables already chopped up, preparing for the strike, which let the workers know the boss was running scared. The last two days, Management literally doubled their offer. That's the money. And they gave ground on important non-monetary issues. So we took a vote.

Debate was hot, and after the first day of voting I went to bed knowing that in 24 hours my friends were walking off the job. The second day, folks seemed a little cooler. And in the end, union members voted yes -- not by a lot, but by enough. The strike was off. It was disappointing in a way, all the build up and anger, pretty anticlimactic. But my friends at UIUC stood their ground, they did what nobody thought they could do, words can't express the heroism I saw out there in the snow, the sweltering heat, and in the meeting rooms. Oh, yes, they won.

Note (8/12/11): Money isn't everything, but it helps. In the space of two months, once the dust settled and the contract was signed and everything in place, building service and food service workers at UIUC added 4% to their previous pay (with 1% back pay to last July) -- in the midst of recessions and budget crises at every level of government, and triple-dip unemployment -- more than anybody else in the University system or in the area. They earned it. My hat's off to 'em.


Peter Miller said...

Excellent work, Ricky, and SEIU Local 73! I appreciate the write-up since I haven't been able to follow the day-to-day happenings.

VeganLinda said...

Awesome work!