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2,000 Cook County workers go on strike

The workers protested what they say are overly burdensome health insurance premiums that would all but erase a proposed pay increase.

Striking SEIU Local 73 Cook County workers walk the picket line outside Stroger Hospital on the Near West Side, Friday morning, June 25, 2021.
Striking SEIU Local 73 Cook County workers walk the picket line Friday outside Stroger Hospital.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The supportive honking from cars on Damen Avenue didn’t let up Friday as a group of Cook County employees picketed in the rain outside Stroger Hospital.

In all, about 2,000 county workers went on strike after nine months of negotiations without agreement on a new contract. SEIU Local 73 says the custodians, technicians and administrative assistants want more opportunities for advancement and a pay increase that won’t be wiped out by higher health insurance premiums.

“We will not stand for the disrespect, the ignoring, the not taking us seriously,” said Jeffrey Howard, SEIU Local 73 executive vice president. “When the city of Chicago, the state of Illinois, the county of Cook needed us, we were here every day, taking care of the infirmed, forsaking our families to come to this place. And now that we are here and we ask for something little, we get nothing. We’re not going to accept that.”

The workers want Cook County to use some of its COVID-19 relief money to meet their demands. No bargaining sessions are scheduled, the union said.

“Cook County will continue to bargain in good faith while discussing these matters – at the table. We remain in the bargaining process and anticipate giving a fair, reasonable, and equitable economic package for both parties,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s office said in a statement to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Preckwinkle’s office said Cook County this week reached tentative contract agreements with the Teamsters and AFSCME but provided no details of those agreements.

The strike by SEIU Local 73 came a day after about 900 nurses who work for Cook County Health held a one-day work stoppage. Stroger and Provident hospitals postponed some elective procedures, and Stroger’s emergency department was put on bypass for the day.

Union negotiators said they waited 10 hours Thursday to discuss their contract demands but no one from the county showed up on the video call.

“I woke up with an understanding that we were going to go into negotiations,” said Sylvia Kizer, a Stroger Hospital building services worker. “And for us to sit there all day, we had to laugh and talk among ourselves to keep from crying.”

Kizer, who said she’s tested positive for COVID-19 twice in the past seven months said she can’t afford an increase in health insurance premiums that’s bigger than her pay increase.

“Some of you say, ‘I can’t afford to strike,’” Kizer said to her coworkers. “I can’t afford a pay cut.”

Contributing: Stefano Esposito