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Hospital fires 52 workers during contract talks

By Joseph Grim Feinberg | February 27, 2004 | Page 11

CHICAGO--The University of Chicago is the largest employer on the South Side of the city, and this January, it decided to flex its economic muscle--or perhaps more accurately, to lose a little weight. Over the course of the month, the university's hospital fired 52 workers, including clerical workers, janitors, nurses and technicians.

The charge? "Theft of parking spaces." The fired workers had parked more than once without payment in an on-campus garage, according to hospital officials.

The workers were terminated without warning and without the option of paying restitution--which is justified, according to hospital spokesperson John Easton, because the hospital's policy states that it has no responsibility to give termination warnings to workers who "steal."

But it's not difficult to understand the motivations of hospital administrators, who chose this particular time to address these parking issues, which have been outstanding for the last year. Administrators have been negotiating new contracts with hospital unions since June, and what better way to intimidate workers than a round of terminations.

The hospital workers have legitimate reasons for parking in the wrong lot. Forced to drive to work by the abysmal state of South Side public transportation, they are then forced to walk through a dangerous neighborhood, sometimes early in the morning, before sunrise.

One employee was recently robbed at gunpoint on the way from the off-campus lot to work. The hospital had promised to run a shuttle between the employee lot some blocks away and the hospital itself, but the shuttle has not begun to run. On top of that, claim workers, the hospital never clearly explained to them its parking policy.

Hospital management denies any connection between the firing and the contract negotiations, but Erica Phillips, a fired worker who was on her union's negotiating team, claims that the hospital took the measure to make room in its budget for a pay raise that the union had just won--the first substantial pay raise in nearly a decade. Phillips, who has filed a lawsuit for wrongful discharge, also noted that the hospital insists on dealing with each employee "on a case by case basis" to avoid a class action lawsuit and to force unions to expend their scarce resources in legal fees.

Many fired employees and their unions have taken action against the firings, and several student groups and neighborhood organizations have also expressed their solidarity with the fired workers. This is just the beginning.

To learn more and sign a petition supporting the fired workers, go to www.743newleadership.org/?q=node/view/31.

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