A contract that could divide

June 13, 2012

Orlando Sepúlveda reports on the raitification of a contract by SEIU members in the Chicago Public Schools--and why the deal doesn't do enough for workers.

ON JUNE 9, in a membership assembly, members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 approved a deal with Chicago Public Schools that, according to union officials, will stop the privatization of the multiple services that SEIU members provide to Chicago students and schools. This will save thousands of jobs for the next three years, the officials say.

But some union members believe the contract sells workers short--and could be used to undermine teachers in their upcoming contract battle.

The meeting was attended by many regular rank-and-file members, as well as many newcomers, all driven by concerns related to privatization, "transitioned-out" positions, salary and health care, the rush to vote on the contract, potential pressure to cross a teachers' picket line in the event of a strike, and unity with the teachers' union for a better contract.

The deal passed, but not without a sizable opposition during the membership meeting. It is foreseeable that it will produce frustration, confusion and resentment as the wider membership gets to know and experience the new contract details. In a room which was full, 163 members voted "yes," 108 voted "no," and more than 5,200 were absent.

SEIU members sit in with Chicago teachers at a protest last fall
SEIU members sit in with Chicago teachers at a protest last fall

THERE ARE four questions to ask:

1. Why the rush?

A week before the contract vote, Local 73 members got an invitation to attend the ratification meeting in their work mailboxes. The 5,500 union members are spread around the city, in groups of between one and 20 members per school.

Of five coworkers in my workplace who I talked to about coming to the vote, two had to work a second job that morning, one worked until 3 a.m., another had to take care of a sick person, and one coaches.

During the week, many members contacted SEIU offices for information about the deal--some multiple times--but were only told to come to the meeting. There, they would be informed about the changes to the contract, and would have to vote "yes" or "no". No information about the proposed contract would be given beforehand.

This was a main source of frustration at the meeting itself, as it had been among the membership at schools during the previous week.

Seeming to only partially try to answer the many questions on the floor, and attempting to manage the many raised hands seeking to speak, Local 73 Vice President Taalib-Din Ziyad said that the local had done all the necessary for "all of you" make an informed vote. The answer didn't satisfy the membership, who started comment, "That's not true," "No," and "Nah-ah!"

The whole ratification process lasted three hours: 15 minutes to seat the members, followed by a little more than one hour for the assembly, which was suddenly closed with the statement, "It seems you have all made your minds--now we'll vote. " Unfortunately, nobody challenged that course--while at least two dozen of hands were still up.

That was followed by one hour of ballot voting. All the members present voted in half an hour. It was an efficient and clean process. During the other half hour, we waited for other members to get to the hall and cast their ballot, after being phoned by meeting participants. The votes were counted and recounted in less than 30 minutes.

The manner in which this vote was carried out does not answer the question that it was supposed to tackle: Does the membership accept the terms of the contract? And, how much will the imposition of this deal damage the relationship between the union and its membership. The members at the meeting showed a willingness to fight back, while the union leadership saw its responsibility to avoid a fight in protection of its own members.

2. Were jobs saved?

The main argument by union officials and staffers in favor of the deal is that it saves thousands of jobs. They claim that, had the membership rejected the deal, the jobs would have disappeared fast, contracted out to private bus and security firms paying $10 an hour to their workers. Union officials said that the city was prepared to replace workers with private contractors in two weeks.

But we heard different numbers put forward on jobs. At the beginning of the membership meeting, after reminding us about Chicago's deficit, one official said that the new contract would save 3,600 jobs. Later, the same person said that "a vote 'no' means 2,000 jobs lost." In later discussions in the lobby before the vote-counting began, the numbers ranged from 14 to "half of our membership."

Nobody was sure how, but we were told that if we voted "no," the city would supposedly proceed to lay off unionized education workers and substitute them with unqualified personnel--and somehow, in the midst of Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) negotiations that are igniting a wider fight for public education, this would have happened without anyone doing anything about it.

Union staffers were also quick to argue that our union can't count on the teachers, saying "Do you think that the teachers care?" "They have their union to care for their own," and "You know how they look at you in school, like you're less than them?" One union official I spoke to suggested that non-teacher workers in Chicago Public Schools are banned by law from striking. In any case, the new contract contains a "no strike" clause.

It's as if the union was suggesting that all the stars would line up for defeat if we dared to fight. But is our union going to accept the limits of the fight imposed by this given framework, or strategize about how to overcome them?

A "no" vote would not have meant the city threat to cut 2,000 union jobs would have been realized. It would have meant that we kept fighting.

That's why some members left the room concerned that the contract won't actually stop privatization. And they're right in not trusting the city to keep its promises. They're right in not trusting the union's capacities and abilities to make the type of fight necessary to force the city's hand, if needed.

3. Is this the best deal we could get?

The deal gives 2 percent raises for each year of the three-year contract. By the end of it, a person making $30,000 a year--someone with five years or more in the system--will be making approximately $31,800. Is $1,800 more enough to leave your second job?

Of course, that's minus $250--since the board will not pay any more before winter break. And minus another $100 to $300, depending on the plan and salary, for health insurance. And minus some hundreds or thousands of dollars more in penalties if the insured member is a smoker or fails to follow a "wellness program"--establishing a sort of health care police.

The wellness program was presented to members as being as simple as going to your physician and filling in some forms. If you have a chronic illness, you follow the treatment, because "they may call you to ask you if you are taking your medicine or not." This goes for your family, too--anyone covered by the insurance plan who fails to follow the program must pay $600. And if you smoke, you will pay $150 or $250.

There is also a "me too" clause in the contract ensuring that if paraprofessionals represented by the CTU get above the 2 percent given to us in their contract negotiations, we will get it, too. In other words, we'll let them do our fighting, and benefit from the result.

When someone from the floor asked, "Why do we need a 'me too' clause? If we want to get what the teachers get, why not get it fighting with the teachers?" the room exploded in support for the idea that we can get a better contract if we are united.

4. Was it a step forward for the Chicago labor movement and for public education?

Currently, across the country, public education is under the threat of privatization and public-sector workers are under attack. These attacks are being carried out by the richest 1 percent and the government officials who represent them, as they try to impose austerity measures through cuts to social spending and lowering the living standards of all workers.

As this ratification process was carried on, the 30,000-member strong Chicago Teachers Union was in contract negotiations with the city. This month, the CTU carried out a strike authorization vote in which it got the approval of nearly 90 percent of its membership to strike if necessary.

Meanwhile, CPS leadership is closing ranks with the pro-privatization education "reform" movement, demanding teachers to take "merit pay" and attempting to close public schools to be given over to private charter and turnaround management.

In Chicago, the stage is being set for a wide-ranging fight for better working conditions at the schools, better public education and, more broadly, for a fight against the tide of austerity and cuts in social spending.

With the approval of the contract, SEIU Local 73 leadership took a pass on the struggle, while still hoping to benefit from a possible teachers' victory. Ultimately, this weakens Chicago labor as a whole.

This provoked another tense moment at the ratification meeting, when from the other side of the room, a young member asked if we would be forced to cross the picket line in case of a teachers' strike. In the past, strikes have meant that the schools have been closed, argued some staffers, so that danger doesn't exit. But in the event of a prolonged strike, under mounting pressure from some parents who would their children to go to school, CPS may attempt to keep schools open.

When the same member asked, "Who is going to open the school? I'm not crossing the picket line," the room exploded in support for a second time. Vice President Ziyad answered, "If you decided not to cross the picket line, well...good for you!"

Shortly afterward, with many hands still up in the air to speak, and union officials repeating that a "no" vote would mean the loss of thousands of jobs, union members were ordered to start to line up to cast their ballots. But the question remains: What role will the 5,500 SEIU Local 73 members will play in the coming fight?

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