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SEIU turns up heat on Lightfoot, says contract dispute could leave parents without safe alternative if teachers strike

Local 73 President Dian Palmer says Lightfoot faces three strikes by 35,000 employees unless she reaches a fair contract with employees, many of them women, who’ve been ‘underpaid and made invisible’ by City Hall.

Union members on Tuesday held a news conference at City Hall.
Union members on Tuesday held a news conference at City Hall, as they continue to push for a contract agreement governing some Park District employees and Chicago Public Schools support staff. “Mayor Lightfoot, you cannot say you are committed to our children and families, our children and our parks, but continue to disrespect the people who do the work,” said SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer (at lectern).
Fran Spielman/Sun-Times

Service Employees Union Local 73 turned up the heat on Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday to resolve the union’s contract dispute with the Chicago Park District or risk leaving parents in the lurch in the event of teachers strike.

The union that represents 2,500 Park District employees and 7,500 support staff at the Chicago Public Schools delivered strike notices to the mayor’s office, chanted outside Lightfoot’s door and held a City Hall news conference to press their contract demands.

They were joined by three rookie Chicago aldermen: Michael Rodriguez (22nd); Andre Vasquez (40th) and Matt Martin (47th). Vasquez held a sign that read, “Parks and Schools are ready to strike.”

Dian Palmer, president of SEIU Local 73, warned that Chicago’s newly-elected mayor faces the possibility of three strikes by 35,000 employees unless she negotiates a fair contract with the “mostly black and brown” employees, many of them women, who are “underpaid and made invisible” by City Hall.

“Mayor Lightfoot has the ability to settle these contracts so that school bus aides are no longer left homeless sleeping in their cars and over 1,600 year-round workers in the parks who work five-days … and up to 30 hours-per-week are no longer denied paid vacations, paid holidays or access to affordable health care,” Palmer said.

“Mayor Lightfoot, you cannot say you are committed to our children and families, our children and our parks, but continue to disrespect the people who do the work.”

Everyday Chicagoans have had their fill of mayors who do the bidding of large corporations and “serve the one percent,” Palmer said.

What the city desperately needs — and Lori Lightfoot promised to be — is a mayor who “stands with and serves the working class and communities of color,” the union president said.

“Mayor Lightfoot, the question for you is, whose mayor will you be? Which side will you stand on? Are you the mayor that understands and acts in accordance with improving the lives of our citizens? Or are you a placeholder until the next mayor steps in and steps up?You decide,” Palmer said.

Becky Kliber, a 33-year veteran Park District worker, acknowledged a strike by teachers, school support personnel and Park District employees would leave parents searching for a safe alternative for their kids. It also could jeopardize the Oct. 13 Chicago Marathon.

But, Kliber said, all 35,000 employees are “fighting for virtually the same thing and we need to stand together.”

“Yes, in the past, for every day off of school in previous teachers strikes, we have always been the location for parents to send their children. But we are not treated as if we’re of any value to the Chicago Park District or the city,” Kliber said.

She and her colleagues “of course” feel guilty about leaving working parents in the lurch, she said.

“We have always been here for the students. We don’t want to go on strike. But, we have to be able to afford to live in the city we’re required to live in. We have to be able to pay our bills. … We’ve never gone on strike. But we are willing to do it because enough is enough,” she said.

SEIU and the Chicago Teachers Union may think they have Lightfoot over a barrel by joining forces, but the mayor did not appear to be the least bit intimidated by the threat of unity.

Later, at a City Hall news conference announcing outreach efforts to ensure an accurate census count, Lightfoot said the escalating rhetoric and strike threats are “all part of the process and we understand that.”

The mayor reiterated her oft-repeated claim that the city has made “great offers” to both unions, while acknowledging members of SEIU Local 73 have been “chronically underpaid.”

“If we are able to strike the deal under terms that we proposed, you’re looking at people getting 7 percent increases, 9 percent increases, 15 percent increases, some of which will be immediate at the time of the signature of the agreement. Others which will take place over time,” the mayor said.

“These are very substantial offers to bring these additional workers up to better standards, make them better compensated.”

The mayor was asked whether the city has a Plan B in the event of a simultaneous strike by both unions.

“We always have contingency plans. But there’s no reason that we should have to draw upon them,” Lightfoot said.

“We should get a deal done.”