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Crystal Gardner, a case manager, helped organize workers at the UCAN social service organization
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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Crystal Gardner: ‘We made major history by organizing’

The case worker was instrumental in helping unionize workers at the UCAN social service agency for the first time in its 150-year history.

It was a long time coming.

When Crystal Gardner and 200 of her UCAN coworkers won their union fight in March 2018, AFSCME Council 31 became the first union to ever represent employees at the Chicago-area social service agency originally founded as a Civil War orphanage 150 years ago.

“We made major history by organizing,” Gardner said. “Like this was big, real big.”

The battle wasn’t easy. UCAN’s management waged an anti-union campaign and hired a union busting attorney to convince employees to vote against it, according to a spokesperson for AFSCME Council 31.

But Gardner, a case manager at UCAN and a member of the bargaining unit, said she and her co-workers were motivated by a lack of resources. “The conditions, the wages and the benefits aren’t where we expected them to be or weren’t where what we deserved. More than half of my coworkers do not have health insurance because it’s too expensive,” she said.

The 36-year old Chicago native also got encouragement from her family — where political organizing runs deep.

She’s the daughter of Joseph Gardner, a longtime Metropolitan Water Reclamation District commissioner and one-time mayoral candidate. Joseph, who ran against Mayor Richard Daley in the 1995 Democratic primary, died a year later in 1996.

Her mother, Mary Russell Gardner, was the first African American woman appointed secretary-treasurer to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County’s Board of Commissioners and twice ran for alderman of the 29th Ward. The family regularly went to meetings of Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition on the South Side.

History of organizing

“My parents always kept us in grassroots organizing, and I remember going to PUSH every Saturday or Sunday. I’m familiar with movements and with standing behind something and supporting it unapologetically and out loud,” said Gardner. “My mom constantly supported me and encouraged me throughout the organizing campaign. Once I got over my anxiety or fear of being retaliated against, this felt like second nature.”

She didn’t always expect to follow in her parents’ footsteps.

A 2001 Whitney Young graduate, Gardner attended Florida A&M for two years and later earned her undergraduate degree at Columbia College in Chicago. She started her career as a grade school teacher for a West Side charter school. Later, she taught job readiness skills to homeless adults for an agency in Maywood and got her master’s degree at DePaul in public service management.

A job at UCAN opened up in 2015, and Gardner started as a residential treatment specialist working directly with at-risk youth ordered to live in an onsite dorm in North Lawndale for 12 to 18 months by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. A year later, she was promoted to case manager.

“I love my job,” Gardner said. “My mantra in life is to enhance the quality of life for others, and I enjoy being part of having an impact on these kids’ lives — many of whom have experienced severe trauma. That’s UCAN’s mission. We prepare them to be tomorrow’s leaders.”

Crystal Gardner works from her car outside the UCAN social service organization at 3605 W. Fillmore St.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

That enthusiasm has been tempered at times by what Gardner describes as overwork and insufficient compensation. “It’s the industry in general, but we’re overworked, underpaid and definitely understaffed, which adds to us being overworked. So you experience some compassion fatigue and that’s when you don’t feel you have anything else in you to give,” she said.

Part of the reason for organizing a union in 2018, she said, was to make sure that fatigue didn’t become permanent. Working conditions at UCAN have improved in the year and a half since then, but a contract between the two parties is still being negotiated.

“There’s still work to be done,” she said.

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