UIUC workers want justice

March 14, 2013

Daniel Werst looks at what a three-day strike by campus workers accomplished.

A THREE-day strike by food and building service workers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) culminated March 13 in a militant rally of close to 300 strikers and supporters. The work stoppage disrupted services, but didn't bring them to a halt. Neither side has clearly won yet, as there is no public offer from the administration on a new contract, and the two sides are headed back to negotiations on March 18.

The strike began when janitors, cooks and other service workers first voted by 91 percent to authorize a stoppage during negotiations and then voted a second time to reject the university's final offer. Separate votes for food service and building service workers were held over three days to allow all workers to vote.

At the last bargaining session, the union was offered an insulting deal: 50 cents more per hour the first year, then 30 cents the second year, and 25 cents in the last year of the contract.

Food and building workers make poverty-level wages, which have been further eroded in recent years by the administration. In real terms, wages have not kept up with inflation, and simultaneously, the state legislature has reduced workers' health care and pension benefits.

SEIU strikers hit the picket lines on the U of I campus in Urbana-Champaign
SEIU strikers hit the picket lines on the U of I campus in Urbana-Champaign

The legislature is likely to cut these benefits even further in the near future. Wages for food service workers are under the federal poverty line for a family of four, and when the university shuts down for summer and holiday breaks, they become unemployed.

The Chicago-based Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 represents university service workers at UIUC and has used strikes of limited length in similar circumstances at other institutions. The idea is to avoid long, costly and risky battles while putting pressure on the employer to make concessions.

The university kept a minimal level of services running by using probationary new hires and student workers, who couldn't strike due to fear of being fired on invented pretexts, together with supervisors and scabs to do cooking, cleaning and delivery jobs. The union decided to tell both new hires and student workers to keep working, acknowledging their lack of job security. Complaints of poorly prepared food, dirty buildings and overflowing dumpsters on campus showed the impact of the strike.

AT THE rally, strikers chanted that university bosses had tons of money while workers were struggling with their bills, and union leaders emphasized that strike had shown the workers' collective power and anger with the administration. And the union repeatedly sent the message that the workers are willing to go back on strike if the university doesn't return to the table with an acceptable deal. Most importantly, strikers were told that they will get a chance to vote on approving a new contract--or going back on strike, this time without a three-day expiration date.

All of this showed how the strike gave workers a new confidence. Several workers commented that it had been years since service workers walked out on campus and the university doubted they had the courage to do it this time. Being on the picket lines strengthened solidarity and raised expectations.

One picket captain, for example, explained that when she saw one of her bosses taking out the trash, she felt a renewed revulsion for him and the rest of management as they engaged directly in the effort to break the strike.

This urge to win--and the realization that the university was doing everything it could to hold wages down--suggests why several speakers at the rally condemned the university failing to do right by its employees and focused on what the union could do to put muscle behind their demands rather than beg for crumbs at the negotiating table.

But with the strike suspended after the third day, the outcome is uncertain. Union leaders and university officials have agreed to hold new bargaining meetings on March 18 and 19. While it is hoped that the university will make a decent contract offer to avoid further strike action, starting work again will at least temporarily demobilize the workers.

Together with spring break during the week of March 18, this will give the university time to catch up with its provision of services and prepare for another work stoppage. Legally, the union can start a new strike with no time limit at any point, but with the conflict paused, this will not be feasible until classes resume on March 25.

Two years ago, the nearly 800 service workers also set a strike date as they sought a new contract, but they ultimately accepted a small raise from the university in order to avert a strike. This time, the mood to strike was galvanized by a lesson learned from that experience--namely, that the administration will do whatever it can to minimize what it gives to workers.

In voting to strike, the workers rejected the university's offer of a roughly 3 percent raise per year for new hires currently making $12.47 an hour and a roughly 2 percent raise per year for the best-paid workers who make $17.49 an hour.

Management showed its commitment to blocking employees from standing up for themselves earlier in negotiations when it retaliated against workers on the bargaining team. Two of them were fired on the made-up charge of a fight at work. Supervisors later changed their story when questioned about this, saying it was only a loud argument.

Three other members of the bargaining team were docked pay on days when they attended negotiating meetings, and another was put on probation simply for letting a union organizer into a campus building to talk to workers on their break.

The university has also repeatedly misinformed students and campus staff in its e-mails about the strike. One announced that "some" service workers were striking--implying the walkout was less than the democratic will of the entire bargaining unit--and suggested that the union was unreasonable in its rejection of the administration's offer.

BUT THE walkout tapped into a lot of anger that workers felt, but couldn't act on before, and the university's pressure to deliver services to students came under significant pressure.

In order to legally allow nonunion employees to perform work outside their job description, the university had to declare an emergency situation, thus allowing supervisors and office workers from the human resources department to work in kitchens and do janitorial work. The sight of bosses cooking and taking out trash as they attempted to cope with the strike drew laughter from picketers.

Picket lines formed promptly at midnight when the strike began, even though many workers had just heard the results of the strike vote announced the same day. Buildings all over campus were picketed, with special attention to loading docks and other strategic places in the university's transport network for food and garbage.

Several other groups of union workers on campus took part in solidarity actions. Most carpenters, painters and other tradespeople refused to cross the picket lines, staying away from work on March 11. The Graduate Employees' Organization of teaching assistants organized members to join pickets in solidarity, and on March 12, they mounted a bike picket, riding en masse and covered in purple and gold streamers to show support for SEIU workers.

Importantly, Teamsters refused to make deliveries. Many trucks were moving, with scab drivers or replacements, but in some cases, picketers were able to convince drivers to turn around or at least slow down deliveries. Unfortunately, the threat of police enforcing access to buildings meant that the union wasn't able to attempt blocking trucks.

Supervisors were also driving trucks, and several strikers stated that they suspected the bosses didn't have the proper licenses or training. Unsurprisingly, the police weren't interesting in checking whether all the drivers being used to undermine the strike were properly credentialed to be on the roads.

On the picket lines, people discussed their objections to work conditions and university policies. One striking janitor had just finished the university's required six months of "probation," explaining how this period is used to force new workers to submit to being constantly and arbitrarily bossed around.

This intense control is used to arbitrarily move new workers to different shifts that they didn't sign up for, sometimes in the middle of the night. As the picketing janitor put it, "It takes a certain mindset to do this 40 hours a week." That's because bosses demand such a fast pace for cleaning duties while simultaneously denying workers basic rights on the job.

A picket captain described how he had repeatedly been forced to clean up trash in science labs that contained hazardous materials. Supervisors essentially ignored his concerns about safety in dealing with hazardous substances that are often poorly discarded.

Years of austerity and budget cuts for Illinois' public universities ultimately compelled these workers to strike. They stood together for a raise, together with additional demands on night-shift pay, vacation time and holidays.

Though it wasn't apparent before the walkout, once the picket lines went up, the desire to fight among rank-and-file workers was plainly evident. While union leaders thought a three-day strike would be less risky while still bringing sufficient pressure to bear on the university to settle on better terms, the danger is that the momentum built during these three days may be lost. If the university doesn't improve its offer, an even greater fight will be needed to shut the campus down.

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