Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Service Employees strike

Sorry for the long delay, anybody who was watching, but I was a little tied up with a MASSIVELY SUCCESSFUL STRIKE at the University of Illinois!  After months of seemingly endless negotiations and picketing, almost 800 food service and building service employees (including maids, linen maids, and the folks who deliver campus mail) walked off the job at midnight March 11, 2013, and set up 24-hour pickets all over campus!

Illinois is one of those Midwestern states where public employees like these are under attack, based on broad swipes of disinformation portraying them as overpaid, lazy, you name it.  The reality is quite different.  Many of these hard-working folks barely get by for much of the year, and many others work second or third jobs, while UI Administrators choke down humongous salaries enough to hire the dozens of janitors and cooks that would be needed to do the jobs right and safely at the main UI campus in Urbana-Champaign.

This glitzy, well-heeled University Admin had been pushing the service employees around for several years, in the apparently mistaken belief that they would never walk out.  During the strike, only about 20 out of the nearly 800 service employees went to work, and most members of Building Trades unions - electricians, plumbers & pipefitters, carpenters, truck drivers - refused to cross the picket lines, not to mention the many, many University employees, students, and community members who brought donuts and pizzas, coffee, etc.,  out to the freezing wet picket lines, the faculty and grad student unions who started a food drive for SEIU strikers, and all the folks in other unions that came out and walked the picket lines with our members.  The support was nothing short of "incredible."

As the undelivered campus mail accumulated, classroom and hallway appearance deteriorated, garbage heaps climbed above the second-storey mark, students began FB-posting photos of nasty food made by scab/boss labor, and other work piled up, University spokespersons repeated over and over that everything was fine and the strike was having no appreciable effect, almost as if trying to convince themselves.  Meanwhile human resources and other suits were spotted all over campus in work clothes, vacuuming, scrubbing, serving food, and the University was forced to (quietly) declare a state of emergency to civil service authorities.

Interestingly enough, no mainstream news agency would report this fact, confirmed by the State University Civil Service System, nor would they investigate the deteriorating sanitation on the campus.  They simply reported the union's claims versus the employer's claims about the garbage.  ("Hmmmm... no way to confirm this, for example by checking the dumpster around the corner there, too bad I'm an investigative reporter!")

Students and secretaries reported that large bins had been placed in the middle of academic buildings and building occupants asked to empty their own trash into these -- to which most responded with a hiss of air through closed lips, "Psh! I'm not doing that!"  And good for them!  SEIU's strategy had been, rather than asking students and faculty not to cross picket lines (or the AFSCME secretaries, library staff, and others, who are bound by contract to go to work), we said, "Go inside and let's show the University what this place looks like with nobody around to clean it up!"

Rumor has it some folks were bringing their old banana peels and fish heads from home!  (It sure smelled like it when we went back in!)

But in the end, the strike was very successful, and service workers felt they had showed the University a thing or two.  IT WAS FUN!  It was tough, too: cold, wet; I slept about five hours over a four-day period.  You never get everything you want in a strike -- and these folks DEFINITELY deserve more -- but by the time back pay finally rolled in, and the second year raise kicked in the same month, the average SEIU member's wage rate increased by almost $1 an hour over a two-week period, plus back pay to July of the previous year, plus $200 bonus, and guaranteed wage increases that nobody else on campus currently has.  Insurance rates went up, but raises more than covered those.  And there were other wins: mail carriers kept five holidays the University was set to grab (they had never had contract language protecting those before), Facilities and Services has to pay extra to employees increasingly shifted to new hours, and Dining Services will finally have to follow the law and offer overtime to current employees before calling in temps (that's an incentive to hire more people!).

But I think the most important victory was what we learned:  Members learned that they CAN pull off a strike (and KICK ASS!), organizers learned a few things we won't discuss publicly, and we all learned what it is going to take to get the University of Illinois to make real needed improvements beyond the modest gains we just won.  Preparations are already underway for the next round of negotiations in 2016.  Let's leave it at that.

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