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Chicago-Area Healthcare Workers Take On A Democratic Boss: What Lessons For The Labor Movement?

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SEIU Local 73’s strike against the Cook County, Illinois administration of County Board President and Democratic Chair Toni Preckwinkle ended with a contract settlement after 18 days, a record for that local. This article was written as the strike was happening, based on many conversations with the strikers on the picket line. What lessons can we draw? Could more have been won?

“We need no more validation from anyone. We need no more acceptance from anyone. Regardless of who stands with us or not, at this point, and at this time, we stand up finally for ourselves. We stand up finally for our worth. We understand what we put into this organization. We understand what we do and we know that without us you ain’t got a damn thing. I’m sorry that some of our members that continue to cross the line do not understand their worth, that they do not understand the whole fight. This will not be the first battle in history that was fought and I can assure you that it will not be the last. There is no battle in history that was fought without self-sacrifice.”

This is how SEIU Local 73 member Eugenia Harris addressed her fellow strikers outside County Hall on the 13th day of their hard-fought strike against the Democratic administration of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle.

As the rate of new COVID-19 infections and deaths slowed nationwide, life may have been getting back to some kind of normal for some, but essential workers like Eugenia were given no time to recover from the global pandemic. In healthcare, patients have been going back to their regularly scheduled appointments, but hospital bosses are pushing to maintain the breakneck pace that was set during COVID-19.

At Chicago’s Cook County hospitals, some workers fought back. Cook is the second largest county by population in the United States. Its government employs thousands of workers, many of them in the third biggest public hospital system in the country. The majority of county workers belong to five unions: AFSCME, with reportedly 4,000 members, SEIU with 2,500, and NNU with 1,250, while the Teamsters and FOP each have several hundred. Most of the remainder are in a coalition of 18 unions in the trades, which bargain a single contract for construction workers. All of these contracts expired simultaneously on November 30th, 2020, putting these 20-plus unions in a strong position to launch a unified struggle over working conditions, pay and benefits. Potentially a massive demonstration of the power of organized labor to “shut it down.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, healthcare workers all over the U.S. have been taking action to demand hazard pay, PPE, and safe patient limits as COVID wracked the country. Chicago and Cook County saw nursing home workers on strike for hazard pay, safe staffing, and a livable wage. At the University of Illinois Medical Center, 1,400 nurses represented by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA) and 4,000 other healthcare workers in SEIU Local 73 went on strike for seven and ten days respectively in September, winning significant gains including PPE and hazard pay. Educators have had to fight for a safe return to school. Around the country, some gains have been won, with nurses in Cincinnati winning an 8.8% pay increase in the first year of their new contract while Asheville, NC nurses won a historic first contract with the for-profit HCA corporation. On the other hand, the Massachusetts Nurses Association has been on strike at St Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester, MA, since March, with no end in sight. The overall picture is that while the bosses have gone on the offensive to maintain the speed-up they imposed under COVID-19, union leaders have failed to respond in kind, neither putting forward bold demands for the things that workers need, nor coming up with a serious, coordinated strategy to win them. They are bargaining like it’s 2019, in a completely different situation, ignoring the huge openings that exist for major gains to be made.

Essential Workers Are Heroes, but They’re Paid like Zeroes!

In Cook County government employment, it is the hospital workers that have the strongest union traditions. Cook County Hospital had the first doctor’s union in the U.S., and this is where SEIU Local 73 has the biggest presence, ranging from physical therapists, social workers, and medical techs to the lowest paid workers in the system such as CNAs, transporters, dietary, and janitorial employees. All of these workers are essential, but for the past 14 months they have worked under the massive stress of the pandemic. Cook County has been the epicenter of the pandemic in Illinois, with half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, disproportionately amongst the uninsured and underinsured patients that the county hospital serves. Workers here had to survive the first three months with inadequate PPE and they never received hazard pay. During the same period, prices have been rising at the rate of 4.2% a year and currently, as of the end of June, are going up at twice that rate. Since the three year union contract that expired last November began with a first-year wage freeze, and only provided for 2% raises in each of 2019 and 2020, all of these workers have been steadily losing purchasing power during the pandemic.

Cross-Union Solidarity: Strike Together or Fail Separately

Given the enormous crisis in health care that COVID-19 created, and which has seen rising public support for unions and especially essential workers, coordinated bargaining centered around bold demands could have won huge and long overdue gains, especially for the lowest paid. 

This did not happen. As this article was being written, the 2,500 members of SEIU Local 73 had been on strike since June 25th while shamefully, all the other unions had settled their contracts and went back to work. After months of delays and bad-faith bargaining on the part of the employer, SEIU 73 held a strike vote on May 18th. The only other union to take such a vote was the nurses’ union, NNU/NNOC, but they announced in advance that theirs would only be a one day strike, taking place the day before SEIU was due to go out. The employer then proceeded to offer these other unions the terms that SEIU had said they would settle for. In a shameful breach of solidarity, AFSCME, NNU, and the Teamsters proceeded to accept this offer and keep their members on the job as SEIU was forced out onto the picket lines – directly helping the employer to send a clear message that workers who go on strike will be punished. The other unions’ acceptance of this deal has caused bitter resentment on the picket lines.

A good union contract is one that raises every member’s living standards while allowing for inflation and taking care of whatever inequities exist between different classifications. Most union activists would agree that raising the standards for the lowest paid should be a high priority. But the terms that some of the other unions have accepted, and which SEIU had originally asked for, will represent an effective pay cut, given how quickly rent and other costs are rising. With across-the-board cost of living raises of only 2% a year, these contracts will mean that workers’ living standards continue to be eroded.

Evidently, the goal of SEIU, with the other unions following suit, was to give up adequate across the board raises in order to win increases for the lowest paid, as well as longevity pay for long-term employees – in Local 73’s case, focusing on those with 20 years’ service and up. For example, one senior records clerk interviewed on the picket line reported that she had worked for the County since 1995 but had not seen a step increase since 2003. But to begin from a floor of only 2% a year across the board, when inflation is running at twice that and accelerating, undercuts the entire project. Media reports and NNU say that some nurses’ union members won much bigger raises – the range of across the board raises is reportedly from 12% to 31% over the life of the contract, an additional 175 vacancies will be filled and another 125 new positions created to ease staffing shortages.

However, all of the unions are reported to have agreed to a massive 80% increase in health care costs, and these will apply to Local 73 as well. One low paid member of Local 73, interviewed by Socialist Alternative, told us that her out of pocket maximums would double from $1600 a year to $3200.

Preckwinkle Refuses to Negotiate

The boss confronting these workers is Cook County President and Democratic Party chairperson Toni Preckwinkle, a former public school teacher and “progressive” Alderman,who, as workers have angrily pointed out, stands to enjoy three different pensions from her various public service positions. Preckwinkle was the endorsed candidate of almost all of organized labor, especially within the public sector, both when she ran for County Board President several years ago and in 2019 when she was acclaimed as the progressive, pro-union candidate for Mayor of the City of Chicago. Union leaders, speaking on the picket line, have claimed that her refusal to give these workers a fair contract will end her political career, implying that the union will punish her at the polls at some future date. But this avoids the issue of who would replace her; various other elected officials have visited the picket lines and made militant-sounding speeches, without referencing the fact that most of them endorsed Preckwinkle and campaigned for her. Chicago Socialist Alternative pointed out at the time that this was a serious mistake.

During the 2019 Mayoral primary season, the combined donations from SEIU locals and PACs accounted for an astonishing 2.4 million dollars, almost one third of “Toni for Chicago”s total campaign donations. But even at the time, SEIU International V-P Tom Balanoff admitted in an interview with the Chicago Tribune that Preckwinkle had a history of playing hardball in contract negotiations, which he shamelessly cited as proof that she would not be beholden to organized labor! 

Lesser Evilism leads to Betrayal: There’s Always Another Preckwinkle

During the strike, the rest of organized labor – including other SEIU locals – was shockingly absent from Local 73’s picket lines. The response of the Local 73 leadership to their isolation was to declare that they would punish Preckwinkle by bringing her down electorally. This shows a real failure to understand the dynamics of the situation. As a corporate politician, Preckwinkle was using the strike to prove to the business community and corporate media that far from being beholden to the unions, she can be relied on to try to break them. This is entirely in keeping with her actual record of imposing taxes on working people while cutting services, closing a major hospital which caused over a thousand layoffs, and going after workers’ pensions. At this moment, Cook County has a budget surplus, further evidence that these attacks on workers are politically driven. Preckwinkle’s refusal to bargain a fair contract, and her use of court orders to take away some 390 hospital workers’ right to strike, is proof positive that the union’s electoral strategy has failed.

While the union’s leadership were pointing in an electoral direction – in effect, postponing the real fight until some future November – the union’s real strength was not being used to its fullest extent.  For example the picket line at the hospital was on a public sidewalk, where passing traffic honked in support, but the pickets did not confront the members of the other unions that have settled, or even their own members, significant numbers of whom, as speeches on the picket line indicated, had begun to lose faith and return to work. Some militant tactics were used, but in a limited way; the union picketed two public highway construction sites within the county and pickets at the hospitals stopped some deliveries by UPS, whose union instructs them to refuse to cross active picket lines. But since picketing was limited to a few hours a day, all UPS had to do was rearrange its schedule to make sure that deliveries were made when the pickets were absent. 

Beyond the pay raise issue, the strikers’ non-economic demands pointed to the chaos of the county health care system and its impact on their lives. Workers rightfully demanded an end to the band-aid solutions to the structural short staffing that management uses to keep workers constantly at full stretch. These demands included an end to the use of on-call and agency workers as regular staffing tools, and to stop mandatory overtime, unrestricted floating, and temporary transfers. Instead, they called for an improvement to step increases and better raises, equal pay for equal work, preserving affordable healthcare, and rewarding professional experience and licensure. There was no specific demand for new hires but the above measures would push in that direction. 

Negotiations were at a standstill during the July 4 holiday weekend, costing the strikers their pay for the holiday itself. A Federal mediator having been called in, talks began again the following weekend and a leaked memo from Preckwinkle’s HR chief to the County Board repeated the misleading claim that SEIU had been offered the same terms as all the other unions had agreed to. A fighting union leadership should have demanded that the County Board account for the money being spent on scabs, while more competent workers remain on the picket lines. But unfortunately it seems that what brought management back to the table was the union relinquishing some of its demands on behalf of the lowest paid workers. On Monday morning, July 12, pickets reported that the longevity pay was being sent to an arbitrator in hopes of a fair settlement and that the only significant item left was the question of raises for workers in the especially low paid environmental services division. 

On Monday evening, July 12, SEIU announced that a settlement had been reached. 

After a bitterly hard fought 18 day strike, SEIU seems to have gained some improvements over the offer that the above leaked document says were made on the fourth day. With the County continuing to operate, thanks to court orders and the other unions’ failure to respect the strike, it would be hard to make the case that another day, or another week on strike would have significantly improved this offer. As this article is being published, details have not been released because the membership have yet to take a ratification vote, but it’s clear that the increased health costs and low COLA will eat into workers’ living standards going forward. 

The strike was held back, not only by the actions of the other unions and court orders that took away some workers’ right to strike, but also by the leadership’s failure to make bold demands. This contributed to the problem of SEIU members crossing the line. When the across-the-board increases being demanded were less than the rate of inflation it’s not hard to see why many workers voted with their feet against staying out on strike. It did not help that union leaders had argued, at the peak of the strike, that the difference between their demand and the offer on the table “amounts to a rounding error” for the County’s $6 Billion budget. 

For the workers who stayed out, the experience was transformative. In the words of building service worker and rank and file striker Sylvia Kizer:

“This fight gave us courage, taught us how to fight, and to believe in ourselves. The issue was never about going to work, it was about the conditions we were working in. We built solidarity across the County, across job titles and education levels, and we became family. I can walk around with my head held high. This is a movement not a moment, and we will never be the same.”

With such a fighting spirit, much more could have been won. 

Strong Picket Lines Needed More Support – Organized Labor Failed To Step Up

Workers are brought together as social beings in the workplace, where teamwork is everything. This is the material basis of working class solidarity and of workers’ power. The role of the other Cook County unions was like the pro-business, pre-World War II American Federation of Labor, which had to be pushed aside by a mass movement to create the mass, industry-wide unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). This is the kind of movement that needs to be built today. Now as then, socialist ideas and grass-roots, movement-building methods will be required to build it. 

The Way Forward

Half a million unionized workers live in Cook County, almost all of them organized within the Chicago Federation of Labor. The role of Toni Preckwinkle, as one of the state’s most prominent Democrats and as one endorsed broadly by organized labor during her rise in electoral politics, points to the absolute uselessness of the Democratic Party as a vehicle for working people. But the labor leaders’ personalization of Preckwinkle’s betrayal allows the union leadership  to let themselves off the hook for relying on a party that will continue to betray workers. If Preckwinkle goes, the Democrats will just find another figurehead. Working people need our own political representation. This has never been more urgent.

Chicago is the second biggest financial center in the U.S., home to the world’s largest commodities exchanges – the CME and CBOT. Together these companies handle over one quadrillion dollars a year in financial transactions. None of these transactions are taxed, yet it has been estimated that a tax of 2/1000 of a percent of average contract value would raise between $6 billion and $12 billion annually. Union leaders claimed that “the county has the money” based on $1 Billion that was earmarked for it in Federal COVID-19 funds, but this would not be enough to fund what’s needed into the future. Chicago, and Illinois, need to tax the rich.  

Unions Need Their Own Party

It is a travesty that in one of the richest cities in the history of the world, workers with decades of service to the public hospital system were forced out on strike simply to try to limit the severity of what amounts to a pay cut. 

Going forward it is essential that union activists draw the conclusion that we have to break with the union leaders’ reliance on the Democrats, and their collaborative relationship with the bosses. As strikers return to work there will be a justifiable sense of anger against fellow workers who crossed the line. But there also needs to be a fight back against the union leadership that allowed this situation to develop. Already on the picket lines, workers were calling out Joe Biden for coming to town and hob-nobbing with Preckwinkle without telling her to settle the strike on the union’s terms. Workers were not impressed by the city aldermen and County Commissioners who came to the union with chest-thumping declarations of support, without acknowledging their own past endorsement and continuing relationships with Boss Preckwinkle. These are the same individuals whose relationships with developers and contractors prevent them from taking serious steps to tax the rich and raise the funds to provide decent pay and public services. The fight to democratize the unions, to make them militant weapons in the hands of working class people can’t be separated from the fight for a break with the Democrats and the building of a new party that will fight for the interests of working class people, not the bosses.

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