- Interview by
- Sarah Hurd
The custodians, technicians, and clerks of Cook County, Illinois, never stopped working during the pandemic, even as many of their coworkers died of the virus. This week, they aren’t working. The 2,500 members of SEIU Local 73 are now in their second week of a strike.
Local 73 has been negotiating a contract for more than eight months, and the key point of debate is health benefits. The county has threatened to increase premiums by up to 80 percent over the length of the next contract. Seeing the success of fellow SEIU members at the University of Illinois at Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, Cook County workers want something similar. So far, the county, under the leadership of Cook County Board president Toni Preckwinkle, appears to want to make an example of Local 73. Despite the local’s support of Preckwinkle during her failed 2019 mayoral run, her negotiation team has made deals to settle contracts with other unions in the city with wage increases these striking workers are denied.
Sarah Hurd talked about the strike to Ericka White, who works in the procurement office of Cook County and is a union steward and negotiating team member for Local 73.
What is the most important piece of these contract negotiations, for you?
For me, it’s about basic dignity and respect for workers who have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic and before. Cook County government never closed down during the pandemic. The people using the services of Cook County are the least of us — we couldn’t shut down the hospitals, we couldn’t shut down the jails, we couldn’t shut down the corporate offices. We didn’t have that luxury.
We’ve always worked hard, and we should not be pushed aside like we’re insignificant. We provide a service for Cook County government, and we’re determined to not let that be forgotten. The main thing we’re fighting for is our health care coverage. The county is proposing increasing our health care premiums over the life of our four-year contract by almost 80 percent.
Has the pandemic made you and your coworkers think more about adequate health care coverage?
A great many of our coworkers, especially those in the clinics and jails, have contracted the virus. Some not once but twice. We have employees who have passed away due to COVID while doing their jobs. We are a county health system, so we don’t turn anybody away. We had whole floors at the hospital that were COVID floors, and our members were the ones working them. For parts of it, they didn’t even have PPE.
Our workers are passionate about the work they do. They went to work every day. Others opened our homes up as home offices when the county buildings closed down because the work of the county never stopped.
Toni Preckwinkle is not only the president of the Cook County Board of Commissioners, she is also your boss. How do you feel about how she’s handled the union’s demands?
It doesn’t feel like she’s been willing to listen. We have not seen her at any of the negotiations. She has a management team in the labor relations department that conducts these negotiations. From what they’ve put across the table, it doesn’t seem like they are interested in negotiating a fair and equitable contract for our members.
We’ve been negotiating now for almost nine months. We are in the economics phase of it right now. This week, the SEIU negotiating team has been negotiating well into the morning. We got out of negotiation sessions at about 2:15 AM — the night before we got out about 2:47 AM. And this is after we’ve been on the picket line all day long. Since Saturday we have been trying to negotiate nonstop, to no avail.
I know Local 73 supported President Preckwinkle in the past. Do you think this dispute will affect that support for her in the future?
A wide range of workers are on strike right now: office workers, health care workers, many others. Has it been challenging to bring everybody together?
We are very much together, and it wasn’t a struggle to bring us together. We are all experiencing the same issues throughout the county. No matter what department you work for, we are all experiencing the very same thing.
It feels like we’re in a time right now when many different kinds of workers are seizing their power and realizing that the world doesn’t really function without them doing these jobs. Have workers in other fields who are fighting for themselves had an impact on Local 73 members?
Yes. We are in Chicago and have come off of two great [recent] strikes that SEIU were a part of, with the University of Illinois Chicago workers as well as the Chicago public-school workers in conjunction with the Chicago Teachers Union. So we had the privilege of watching before us the victories [those strikes produced] and how it brought those organizations closer together and made them willing to fight. Now that we are on the front lines, those very organizations are coming out in support of us, because they know why we’re fighting and they’ve been there.
So they are encouraging us to stay in this fight. They are encouraging us by coming out to the strike lines with us, giving us pep talks, and letting us know what’s to come.
What are you expecting to happen in the negotiations in the next few days?
The SEIU 73 negotiating team never left the table. We are just waiting on Cook County to say, “Let’s get back to the table and finish this. Let’s work out a settlement for a fair and equitable contract for the very workers that have kept the county going and never let it shut down.”
I am a woman of faith and I’ve prayed on this. I asked God to let it end in such a way that it’s equitable for the members. I’m hopeful we’re on the right path. Will it happen overnight? I won’t say that, but when we put in the work, things happen. SEIU is ready to put in the work; we’re just waiting on the county.
We are losing pay every day. We are not rich, so when we lose a day’s pay, we have to make decisions about what we can pay and what can wait. It hurts. But we’re in it for the long haul because we know we’re worth it.