Univ. of Illinois workers strike over staffing, safety, higher pay

By Naomi Craine
September 28, 2020
Members of Illinois Nurses Association, above, and other hospital workers at University of Illinois Hospital systems are out on strike, demanding increased staffing and safer conditions.
Militant/Naomi CraineMembers of Illinois Nurses Association, above, and other hospital workers at University of Illinois Hospital systems are out on strike, demanding increased staffing and safer conditions.

CHICAGO — Members of the Illinois Nurses Association walked off the job at the University of Illinois Hospital and its clinics here Sept. 12, five days after their contract expired. The strike vote was 995-12. Their central demands are for more staffing and safer working conditions.

Their fight was reinforced Sept. 14 when 4,000 members of the Service Employees International Union began their own strike at the hospital and several of its other facilities around the state. SEIU Local 73 represents clerical, technical, professional, and service and maintenance workers.

Hundreds of striking nurses and SEIU members rallied outside the University of Illinois Hospital that day. “We don’t have access to PPE. They have it hidden away,” Angie Ross, a Local 73 member who works the front desk at one of the hospital’s clinics, told the Militant. “A lot of us make less than $15 an hour. They say because it’s a state hospital they don’t have to abide by the city’s minimum wage. We want respect. When you speak up you’re retaliated against. We’ve been severely understaffed for years, we’ve been asking for help.”

The hospital bosses “want just-in-time staffing, where they’ll text us when they have open shifts,” Doris Carroll, an administrative nurse and president of the Illinois Nurses Association, told reporters at the start of their walkout. “We need enough core staffing to provide patient care, including for nurses to be able to take breaks.”

But the hospital claims minimum staffing ratios would be “too inflexible,” she said.

“Child care centers have staffing ratios. Dog kennels have ratios. Why can’t nurses have ratios? This is about profits over people,” Carroll responded.

The nurses association represents over 1,300 nurses at the hospital. On the eve of the walkout, however, hospital bosses went to Cook County court, and a compliant judge issued an injunction ordering 525 “critical care” nurses to stay on the job.

“I was injunctioned, but they can’t stop me from picketing on my days off,” Crystal Miles, who works in neonatal intensive care and has 32 years at the hospital, told the Militant as she walked the line. She described how nurses are overworked. “You can work a 12-hour shift and not have time to use the restroom. Lunch — that’s a joke.”

Miles said the hospital’s new chief nursing officer, Shelly Major, “came here from a nonunion hospital in Indiana. She wants every nurse on call. She wants you to flow anywhere in the hospital. I don’t want to be sent to the emergency room or a cancer unit. I wouldn’t know what to do.”

Having adequate personal protective equipment is also an issue. “I got COVID-19 twice from lack of PPE available to us,” said Daniel Ortiz, who has worked at University of Illinois Health for two years. More than 200 nurses at the hospital have been infected, and two died earlier this year.

When the pandemic broke out “they gave us N95 masks they wanted us to use five times,” Miles said. “The masks would come back from being ‘recycled’ smelling like bleach. They’re supposed to be for one-time use!”

“They call us heroes, but they don’t treat us like heroes,” said Patricia Morales. “The hospital is proposing a wage freeze,” she added, noting that last year nurses only got a 1% cost-of-living raise.

More staffing is a key issue for the striking members of SEIU Local 73 as well. They are also demanding a minimum wage of at least $15 an hour for service and maintenance workers.

University of Illinois Health has hired hundreds of temporary nurses and other strikebreakers to cross the picket lines.

The Illinois Nurses Association has announced its strike will last seven days, through Sept. 18. The SEIU says its members will stay out as long as it takes to get a contract settlement.