In a show of solidarity with thousands of Cook County, Illinois employees on strike over stalled contract negotiations, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders this weekend admonished county officials for failing to agree to a fair deal for workers who have risked and sacrificed so much—including their lives—during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
"I watched those close to me get sick and die. All we are asking for as Cook County workers is what we are due."
SEIU Local 73
Over 2,000 members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 employed by Cook County—which includes the city of Chicago and over 100 of its suburbs—are in their third week of striking over contract negotiations. Strikers continued picketing on Monday, their 18th day of action.
SEIU Local 73, which represents custodians, technicians, and administrative assistants, is demanding better pay and advancement opportunities. Members say that Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle—whose failed 2019 mayoral candidacy received seven-figure financial support from the union—does not recognize the sacrifices they've made during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
In a tweet on Saturday, Sanders (I-Vt.) said it was "outrageous" that Cook County received $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan—the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief and economic stimulus package signed into law by President Joe Biden in March—"but still refuses to negotiate a fair deal for workers."
SEIU Local 73 says that in addition to Sanders, U.S. Rep. Marie Newman (D-Ill.) and numerous state, county, and local officials have shown solidarity with the strikers. One of them, Chicago City Alderwoman Maria Hadden, told strikers during a Friday demonstration in Maywood that "you all are the lifeblood of making sure our county works."
"The work that you do is so essential," said Hadden, "and if we've learned anything over the pandemic, it's that we need you!"
Unions, progressive organizations, and faith groups are also among those who have expressed support for the strike. In a letter (pdf) to Preckwinkle, 27 faith leaders wrote:
As the spiritual leaders of Cook County, we are calling on you to settle the contract with the Cook County workers represented by SEIU Local 73. These essential workers have kept our county running during the pandemic. They have put their lives on the line to provide the vital services our people depend on.
Asking for the same raise that the county provided other unions... is only fair and just. These are our neighbors, our family, and our friends. We are asking you to look into your heart and do the right thing. Send your negotiating team back to the bargaining table and settle this contract with the workers.
NBC Chicago reports the county workers' strike, which is the longest in SEIU Local 73's history, began after nine months of failed negotiations over a new contract. The union rejected the county's offer of an 8.5% pay hike over the next four years, explaining that it was a smaller increase than offered to other unions.
SEIU Local 73 leaders decried what they said is a lack of incentives for long-term workers and raises for the county's poorest-paid workers, including custodians and housekeepers. They are also demanding raises to help pay for health insurance premium increases.
A county spokesperson told WBEZ that wage and healthcare offers to SEIU workers are "identical" to those in deals reached with four other unions last month. A statement from Preckwinkle's office said the county "is proud to have a history of strong relationships with the labor unions that represent our workforce."
"The work that you do is so essential, and if we've learned anything over the pandemic, it's that we need you!"
However, Ericka White, a union steward and negotiating team member for SEIU Local 73 who works in Cook County's procurement office, told Jacobin that the contract negotiations are "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," said White. "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," she said. "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 healthcare coverage. The county is proposing increasing our healthcare premiums over the life of our four-year contract by almost 80%."
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 [personal protective equipment].
Sylvia Kizer, a 60-year-old county housekeeper of nearly 30 years, is one of the workers who has twice contracted the coronavirus.
"I caught it in December 2020 and then again in March 2021," Kizer told the Austin Weekly News, a community news site covering Chicago's West Side. "I know I caught Covid on the job. I have to ask for personal protection equipment and I work with biohazards. I've worked in areas where we're not informed that the patient has Covid."
"It's a lack of respect, a lack of dignity, a lack of necessity," said Kizer. "They don't see us as grown people and they don't see us as human beings."
Speaking at a Friday candlelit vigil for workers who have died of Covid-19, SEIU Local 73 member Shadonna Davis, who contracted the virus, said, "I watched those close to me get sick and die."
She added: "All we are asking for as Cook County workers is what we are due."
This content originally appeared on Common Dreams - Breaking News & Views for the Progressive Community and was authored by Brett Wilkins.