After 18 Days, More Than 2,000 Cook County Workers Remain On Strike

SEIU strike
Cook County Workers, represented by the SEIU Local 73 union, hold the picket line during Day 18 of their strike, July 12, 2021. Linda Lutton / WBEZ
SEIU strike
Cook County Workers, represented by the SEIU Local 73 union, hold the picket line during Day 18 of their strike, July 12, 2021. Linda Lutton / WBEZ

After 18 Days, More Than 2,000 Cook County Workers Remain On Strike

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More than 2,000 Cook County workers have now been on strike for 18 days, making the walkout the longest public-sector strike in Chicago in recent memory and the longest strike ever for SEIU Local 73, which represents more than 29,000 workers in Illinois and Northwest Indiana.

After two weeks without pay, the union admits some employees are crossing the picket line and heading back to work, squeezed by the need to pay their bills.

“We think it is extraordinarily cynical for the County, rather than taking an approach of resolving the contract … to cynically try and wait them out knowing that they don’t make a lot of money,” chief union negotiator Larry Alcoff said. “I think that is mean spirited; I think it’s morally wrong.”

The union represents a broad range of jobs, from hospital housekeepers to physician assistants, but includes some of the lowest paid workers at the County. Striking employees work at Stroger and Provident hospitals, Cook County Jail, county courthouses and the County’s Loop administrative building, as well as other locations.

Alcoff said 8.5% wage hikes over four years offered by management would be wiped out by inflation and healthcare cost increases. The union wants bigger raises for its lowest wage earners and a pay boost for employees who’ve put in at least 10 years.

“These are individuals that had to come here every day through the pandemic,” said one social worker walking the picket line with colleagues outside Stroger Hospital Monday morning. “A year ago you said we were heroes, and now you don’t have time for us.”

The two sides bargained until late last night.

A spokesman for the county said Friday that wage and health care offers to SEIU workers have been “identical” to deals reached with four other unions in late June: AFSCME, the Teamsters, National Nurses United/National Nurses Organizing Committee and the Fraternal Order of Police. The nurses union came to an agreement after a one-day walkout.

The SEIU strike has put the union at odds with Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle, who has been a longtime supporter of organized labor and a friend of SEIU. The union supported Preckwinkle’s 2019 mayoral campaign. Preckwinkle has not criticized the union or workers, even as the strike has dragged on.

“Cook County is proud to have a history of strong relationships with the labor unions that represent our workforce,” read a statement from Preckwinkle’s office.

Over the weekend, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders tweeted his support for workers: “I stand in solidarity with @SEIU73 and 2,500+ Cook County workers — custodians, technicians, & clerks who are on strike for a new contract. It’s outrageous that Cook County received $1 billion from the American Rescue Plan but still refuses to negotiate a fair deal for workers.”

“Typically, public-sector strikes haven’t gone this long, and that’s because they’re very politically messy,” said Bob Bruno, labor expert at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “They come at a high political risk for elected leaders.”

Bruno said tactics used by private-sector employers — like hiring anti-union law firms — are typically less palatable in public sector fights like SEIU’s, where institutions are providing a public service. The Chicago teachers strike of 2019 went 14 days.

Bruno said a strike that goes on this long suggests there are issues at play that go beyond the nuts and bolts of the contract fight, beyond dollars and cents. Workers believe they’re fighting for their dignity, or management doesn’t want to be embarrassed or pushed around, said Bruno. “It becomes this ego battle that sets in.”

He said how the strike concludes will be important: “Ultimately the strike can end, but it can end in such a way that everybody’s bitter. Nobody feels like they were treated fairly.” Bruno said that can have long-term consequences on things like turnover and productivity.

“What’s the end game here?“ Bruno wondered. Aside from the terms the two sides come to, “What is the relationship that we have after the strike?”