Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle ‘deeply disappointed’ as SEIU Local 73 holds one-day strike over pay, other demands

Alice Yin and Liam Ford, Chicago Tribune

About 1,600 Cook County employees began a one-day strike on Tuesday morning calling for additional pay and work accommodations amid a contract negotiation that has grown increasingly bitter over the last several months.

Cook County health technicians and maintenance workers as well as Cook County clerk’s and sheriff’s office employees began striking at 6 a.m. to demand a $5-per-hour raise for those working with COVID-19 patients, the right for remote work for employees who are able and additional “pandemic pay” for front-line workers. Workers from the union, Service Employees International Union Local 73, organized picket lines outside various county offices on Tuesday.

“Our members have put their lives on the line to keep Cook County functioning,” the union’s president, Dian Palmer, wrote in a statement last week. “The complete lack of respect by (Cook County Board President) Toni Preckwinkle and the managers under her supervision is shocking.”

The action “deeply disappointed” Preckwinkle, she wrote in a statement.

“Cook County respects the rights of its employees under their Collective Bargaining Agreements but is deeply disappointed that the union would ask some of its members to strike during a global pandemic,” Preckwinkle wrote.

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SEIU Local 73 also objected to what it described as the county’s use of “strikebreakers,” or workers from outside Illinois to supplement county employees. Preckwinkle’s spokesman said Tuesday the county has “absolutely not hired strikebreakers” and the new contracts were drawn up to brace for a fall and winter surge of the pandemic.

Juanita Ervin, who works at Stroger Hospital, has six family members at home, several of them with illnesses that could make them vulnerable to the coronavirus, she said in a news conference streamed on Facebook Live from outside the hospital.

“We come to work every day, put our lives on the line,” Irving said. “We would like (county officials) to remove the strikebreakers out of our hospital and allow us to make this money ourselves,” she said.

The county and the union have been negotiating since September, according to the union. SEIU Local 73 said in a Friday statement that the county was not bargaining in good faith, while Preckwinkle said federal coronavirus relief funding has already been used for pandemic pay to county employees who work in hospitals and other packed settings.

Stroger Hospital was operating on a “contingency plan” Tuesday to ensure no services were disrupted, Preckwinkle said.

“The situation is that they’ve gotten to the point where they disrespect us,” county clerk’s office worker James “Big Jim” Phipps said during a picket line that was livestreamed on Facebook. “They disrespect our union. But at the same time, they want us to support them financially.”