Teamsters Local 743, which represents 1,700 University of Chicago Medical Center staff, including nursing assistants and various service, clerical, and maintenance workers, conducted a prayer vigil and union-boosting event on the Midway Plaisance yesterday afternoon. State Sen. Robert Peters, state Rep. Kam Buckner, 20th Ward Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor, and members of affiliated SEIU chapters all voiced their support for the union in anticipation of its upcoming contract negotiations, set to begin June 18.
According to Local 743 president Debra Simmons-Peterson and union trustee Kevin Sanders, the union is hoping to secure higher wages for workers, strengthen job security, clarify procedures around hazard pay, obtain upgrades for medical support assistants, who are struggling with patient workloads, and address human resources issues that union members have identified.
Members of Local 743 wore red t-shirts displaying two clenched hands and the message “United we bargain, divided we beg”, a message that was repeated many times in speeches from the union organizers and politicians in attendance. Two preachers, a singer, and a saxophone player all performed at the gathering, providing interludes of prayer, gospel song, and smooth jazz between fiery speeches.
Simmons-Peterson explained the decision to include prayer at the union event as an effort to assure the success of the upcoming negotiations: “We wanted to have this prayer vigil to ask for a favor from a higher power. Working with the University has been a big challenge,” she said.
Reverend Ira J Acree of the Greater St. John Bible Church delivered the opening sermon, saying: “God, we thank you in advance for what you’re going to do for Teamsters 743. We’ve already asked you to bless the contract, we’ve already asked for divine favor, so we’re in essence coming to say thank you in advance for making sure that University of Chicago will finally give the workers the respect that they deserve. God, we pray for unity and togetherness, we thank you for the allies, like SEIU, that came out here. We claim victory in Jesus' mighty name!”
Alderwoman Jeanette Taylor later delivered a brief, forceful speech outlining disparities in pay between University of Chicago workers and management, and chiding the University for not putting a greater amount of its profits and endowment towards improving worker conditions.
Taylor said, “I was just at the University of Chicago because I had an asthma attack, and I don’t know if I would be standing here if not for the nurses and CNA’s here. Because of you, we’ve made it out of this pandemic. So you should be paid a living wage. It bothers me that University of Chicago medicine is worth [billions of dollars] … But you’re making sure that a CNA only makes $13/hr. That math does not equal up, and that’s not the Chicago I want to live in.”
SEIU HCII president Greg Kelley, whose union represents healthcare workers in Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas, and Wellington Thomas, a med-tech at Loretto Hospital, delivered follow-up remarks that connected union struggles at the University of Chicago Medical Center with wage struggles at the University of Chicago owned Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Harvey, Illinois. Thomas said, “The University of Chicago needs to recognize that Ingalls is part of the University system, not deny it. We need to demand that the hospital pay Ingalls workers livable wages. The minimum wage increased to fifteen dollars, but they didn’t want to make that change at Ingalls. We need to push the pedal down and demand that we are worth more.”
Kelly echoed his critiques, “I am here to offer my support as you take on this behemoth otherwise known as the University of Chicago Medical Center. We have our own battle at Ingalls. We know the University has the money, they just don’t seem to have the will.”
Senator Peters and Representative Buckner both praised the contributions of union members and exhorted unity. Peters said, “What makes the University of Chicago special is not all the beautiful buildings — it’s the people who work in this system, and you need the respect and dignity that you deserve.” Buckner said, “The labor movement has always been one of the most important filaments of our democracy. So I hope you will continue to anchor your movement to this foundation.” He then led the crowd in chanting, “United we bargain, divided we beg.”
Teamsters Local 743 Trustee Kevin Sanders told The Herald that the union had also been experiencing difficulty getting information relevant to upcoming contract negotiations from the University. “A lot of employees noticed that there were more temp workers every year,” Sanders said, “they’re not part of the union, so they’re not protected. If you’ve got 50 temps, why not 50 employees? They hurt our job security.” Sanders added that they hoped to modify language around subcontracting in the upcoming negotiation, in order to ensure that the University relied less on temp workers.
Sanders said that in his prior experience negotiating contracts with the University of Chicago Medical Center, Rush Hospital, Mercy Hospital, and Provident Hospital, the University was the hardest negotiator.
A spokesperson for the University of Chicago released the following statement in response to comments from event attendees: “University of Chicago Medical Center’s bargaining team is committed to reaching a fair contract with Teamsters Local 743 that honors represented employees’ needs and contributions to our success as an organization while also allowing the Medical Center to offer competitive, sustainable services to its patients, their families and the community. The team, which will hold its first bargaining session with Local 743 on June 18, hopes to reach agreement on non-economic (such as the governance of shared processes like grievance management, hiring and bidding processes, and scheduling) and economic proposals promptly. We look forward to continued and productive bargaining sessions this summer.”