Chicago Service Workers End Strike After 18 Days

Chicago Service Workers End Strike After 18 Days

Over 2,500 service workers in the Chicago area agreed to end the longest strike in their union’s 100-year history with a contract that includes an 8.5% pay raise over four years.

CHICAGO (CN) — After 18 days on the picket line, workers with Chicago’s Service Employees International Union Local 73 reached a deal to return to work Tuesday.

The strike ended with a tentative agreement between Cook County and the 2,500-odd county service workers who form part of the union’s Chicago-area branch membership. It was the longest strike in the union’s 100-year history.

The standoff began when more than 10 months of negotiations between the union and the county broke down in June. SEIU Local 73’s collective bargaining contract with the county expired on Dec. 1, 2020, and union members have been working without the protection of a contract since then.

The new contract has not yet been finalized, but a press release put out by union leadership Tuesday said it included much of what the striking workers wanted.

The four-year deal includes a base pay raise over that time – the 8.5% offered by county officials, according to local news reports – as well an expanded health care plan, Covid-19 pandemic hazard pay and the prioritization of senior union members for hiring and promotions.

SEIU officials said negotiators will resolve the remaining issues within the week as union members go back to work.

“Cook County workers showed real bravery by going out on strike to demand respect from the county. This contract has real wins for workers that they should be proud of as it turns the page on decades of Local 73 members being considered second-class citizens at the county,” said Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Local 73, in a statement.

She added, ““These are the essential, frontline workers that kept our county running during the worst pandemic of our lifetime who stood up for themselves, their families, and the communities they serve, during this strike to demand better.”

Local 73 is overwhelmingly made up of Black and brown workers, especially women of color. Its members work in county hospitals, public offices, schools and the Cook County Jail. Though they are not medical or education workers per se – most are employed as custodians, technicians, counselors and clerks – they work closely with nurses and teachers.

The union’s Chicago branch enjoys a particularly close relationship with the Chicago Teachers Union, or CTU. In 2019, the two unions went on a joint strike that lasted two weeks and saw thousands of supporters marching through multiple city neighborhoods.

On Tuesday, CTU members gathered in front of the Chicago Federal Building for a solidarity rally with SEIU organizers to celebrate the new contract and demand better labor conditions for workers across the nation.

The 18-day strike also attracted support from national progressive political figures, including Democratic Illinois congressman and former Chicago mayoral candidate Jesús “Chuy” García and Vermont U.S. senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Both took to Twitter over the past week to express their solidarity with the striking workers.

“I stand in solidarity with @SEIU73 and 2,500+ Cook County workers — custodians, technicians, & clerks who are on strike for a new contract,” Sanders said in a July 10 tweet. “It’s outrageous that Cook County received $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan but still refuses to negotiate a fair deal for workers.”

“Over the last year, many have described our public workers as heroes—and they are correct! But it’s not enough to simply call them heroes.” García said two days later in a July 12 tweet. “We must provide them with the wages, benefits & protections they deserve. Proud to support @SEIU73 on strike!”

Cook County itself has been quiet on the matter. It has released no public press statements nor any announcements on social media regarding the strike or the tentative agreement announced Tuesday.  

Its offices did not respond to a request for comment.

County President Toni Preckwinkle has also avoided commenting on the matter publicly. Her office, like that of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, has been the target of criticism from multiple union sources for their handling of strikes and labor issues.

CTU leadership described the county’s handling of the strike as “shameful,” while SEIU Local 73’s expressed frustration Saturday that the strike was still going. Organizers from the union rallied at the Taste of Chicago food festival that day, urging local attendees “to tell Cook County commissioners to demand Toni Preckwinkle end this strike!”

Union members themselves also expressed hesitation to speak on the strike independently, deferring instead to the union’s official communications channels.

One member who spoke on condition of anonymity said her experience of the strike was as simple as demanding a pay raise.

“We needed to get paid more, and now we got it,” she said. “That’s all there is to it.”

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