University of Illinois-Chicago nurses and support staff around state set to strike
Jeff Sarles/fighting-words.net

CHICAGO — Short-staffing, lack of protective gear against the coronavirus, and other issues where bosses refused to budge, have forced 1,400 union nurses and 2,000 unionized support staffers to strike the University of Illinois-Chicago Hospital system in mid-September.

The system’s 1,400 RNs, represented by the Illinois Nurses Association (INA), sent the legally required 10-day strike notice to management and state officials on September 1, with their one-week strike scheduled to start at 7 a.m. on Sat., Sept. 12.

The support staffers, including clerks, techs, professional and maintenance workers represented by Service Employees Local 73, sent a similar notice. They’ll be forced to walk on Sept. 14 from the main hospital in Chicago and other institutions in Peoria, Rockford and Champaign, union President Dian Palmer said.

Short-staffing is the key issue for the RNs in Chicago, just as it is for NNU nationwide. The union has led a long campaign to get states to impose nurse-to-patient ratios on hospitals, with New York and Illinois the latest two targets in state legislatures.

INA coupled its strike announcement with a renewed call for Illinois lawmakers and Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker to approve HB2604, the ratios bill. An independent study by University of Pennsylvania researchers showed most hospitals in both Illinois and New York flunk minimum recommended nurse-to-patient ratios, said union President Doris Carroll, RN, who works at the Chicago hospital complex.

Short-staffing also forced the INA to recently strike the biggest hospital, Amita Health, in Joliet. There, 700 RNs were forced to walk, and were locked out, for just over two weeks in July. They won a new contract with raises, but that institution refused to budge on the ratios issue, too.

Hospitals, including the Illinois institutions, lobby against patient ratio legislation nationally and state by state. They’re under pressure from the venal, rapacious health insurance industry to cut costs, which in turn boosts insurers’ profits. Hospital bosses respond by cutting both nursing care and more workers.

The insurers’ drive to cut patient care is one big reason NNU leads the nationwide campaign for single-payer government-run Medicare for All. Enacting it would eliminate the insurers and their profit motive from health care, NNU contends.

“Negotiations began earlier this summer but after 18 negotiating sessions, the hospital refuses to engage in a substantive discussion about achieving safe staffing by setting a limit on the number of patients that can be assigned to each nurse, a policy also known as ‘safe patient limits,’” Carroll explained. “Safe staffing is the most important issue in the new contract negotiations.”

Short-staffing is also an issue for SEIU Local 73’s 2,000 clerical, professional, technical and maintenance workers, said local President Palmer. So are working conditions, including lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for all workers against the coronavirus pandemic. Other staff demands include better workload policies, to prevent burnout, and a ban on outsourcing their jobs. And they want minimum pay of $15 an hour. The workers voted by a 94%-6% margin in early September to authorize the strike.

“We will use our collective power to win for our families and communities. Workers have voted and they are ready to strike for their lives, livelihoods and the communities served at UIC Health,” Palmer affirmed in SEIU Local 73’s release.

“We are done with playing games,” Program Service Aide Lavitta Stewart added in Local 73’s statement. “We are done with their lack of empathy. And we are done with their lack of respect. Workers shouldn’t be making $10-$12/hour. That’s just plain sick. And workers shouldn’t be coming into campus worried about contracting a virus UIC has let go rampant amongst the workplace.”

Both locals have also filed file labor law-breaking—formally called unfair labor practices—charges with the Illinois Public Employment Relations Board against the hospital system for refusing to bargain in good faith. Local 73 also picked up backing from 25th Ward Alderman Byron Sigcho Lopez. He’s a former University of Illinois Hospital worker, and the Chicago hospital complex is in his ward.

“I know the conditions many workers are currently working in. We should live by example as a public institution… There will not be peace on this campus until we have proper compensation for our workers,” he said.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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