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SEIU strikes for 5th day after three other unions reach contract agreements with Cook County

AFSCME, National Nurses United and the Teamsters all agreed to terms, but the union representing custodians, technicians and administrative workers remained on the picket line.

SEIU Local 73 Cook County county workers strike for their fifth day in a rally at the Cook County Building in the Loop, Tuesday afternoon.
Striking SEIU Local 73 Cook County workers rally inside the Cook County Building at 118 N. Clark St. in the Loop, Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Unions representing thousands of county workers and nurses have reached agreement with Cook County President Toni Preckwinkle’s office this week, but SEIU Local 73 remained on the picket line for a fifth day Tuesday as the union battled with officials over skyrocketing health care costs.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, representing about 4,000 people, agreed to a 11.5 percent pay raise over four years, while the 1,250 nurses represented by National Nurses United received a “historic contract agreement” including raises ranging from 12.25% to 31.74% over the next four years, officials said. The Teamsters also reached an agreement, although terms were not immediately released.

But after negotiating until 2 a.m. Tuesday, no agreement was reached with SEIU Local 73, which represents custodians, technicians and administrative staff. Later in the day, about half of the 2,500 striking members came to a rally outside the Cook County Building downtown. No additional negotiations were scheduled to take place Tuesday.

Striking SEIU Local 73 Cook County workers rally outside the Cook County Building at 118 N. Clark St. in the Loop, Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Striking SEIU Local 73 Cook County workers rally outside the Cook County Building at 118 N. Clark St. in the Loop, Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The main point of contention, the union says, is the county’s “take it or leave it” offer of a 8.5 percent pay raise. That, the union said, is not enough to offset a proposed health insurance cost increase of 70 to 80%.

Dian Palmer, SEIU Local 73 president, said she’s disappointed in the negotiations thus far, but believes they will prevail.

“Striking is the last resort,” Palmer said. “We’re not getting a check. That’s not a good feeling when you’re trying to improve lives and people are going without the money that they need for their family. So, I would not do that to a worker if I didn’t think I could be successful.”

She said she didn’t know if Preckwinkle was aware of the hard line negotiators are taking at the bargaining table.

“I have not talked to the president, so I’m not sure that she knows the facts as I see them,” Palmer told the Sun-Times. “ ... So I intend to have a conversation with her. And she’s always been fair about talking to us about issues.”

Preckwinkle’s office did not respond to questions on the union’s claims about the status of negotiations. But it said in a statement that it “will continue to bargain in good faith with SEIU 73 until a deal is reached. ... We remain in the bargaining process and anticipate giving a fair, reasonable, and equitable economic package.”

At Tuesday’s rally, members of the union joined hands, bowed their heads and prayed for fairness and equal treatment. The sidewalk outside the County Building was a sea of purple, buzzing with the echo of high-pitch whistles, dumbbells, drums, symbols and rallying cries.

“A lot of our health workers and maintenance workers are walking around here, working in hospitals, but can’t afford health insurance. I think that is a disgrace,” state Sen. Mike Simmons, who was at the rally to back the strikers, told the Sun-Times. “I support much broader structural changes to the healthcare system across the board. We need health care for everybody. I don’t think it makes sense to give somebody a pay raise, and then that pay raise is not going to be enough to cover the increase in their health insurance premiums.”

Striking SEIU Local 73 Cook County workers march around the Cook County Building at 118 N. Clark St. in the Loop, Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Striking SEIU Local 73 Cook County workers march around the Cook County Building at 118 N. Clark St. in the Loop, Tuesday, June 29, 2021.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times file