Preckwinkle facing labor woes as about 2,000 Cook County employees take to the picket line a day after earlier strike by nurses

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About 2,000 Cook County employees went on strike Friday morning, a day after the county hospital system’s nurses also staged a work stoppage despite Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle’s continued hope for negotiations with all unions to wrap up soon.

In announcing the 6 a.m. strike by Service Employees International Union Local 73, its president Dian Palmer said the ball is in the county’s court to reach a deal, but its negotiators “strung … workers along” during Thursday’s negotiations by not proposing a counteroffer on economic issues.

“ (Preckwinkle) has turned her back on essential workers who risked their lives and their families lives during the pandemic,” Palmer said in a statement. “It appears that she is punishing Local 73 members for standing up for themselves, their families, and their community.”

The union spokesman Eric Bailey said SEIU workers will be striking “indefinitely” until a contract is solidified. The sticking points are over pay, including pandemic pay such as temporary bonuses or raises for front-line workers in hazardous situations, and retiree health benefits, he said.

Preckwinkle has not discussed negotiations in detail, but she said Thursday that her bargaining team is focused on inking a deal.

“I’m proud of our record of good working relationships with our labor unions for a decade,” she said, noting the county settled on a contract with another union that did not strike. “We of course regret that there’s a strike today by the nurses. We’re hopeful that we’ll continue our negotiations with both the nurses and SEIU regardless of what transpires over the next two days.”

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SEIU employees work in offices under the Cook County president, in the county clerk’s office, in civilian positions in the sheriff’s office, and for Cook County Health. About 1,473 of those workers are part of Cook County Health, working at Stroger and Provident hospitals, clinics and in mental health services at Cermak. They include technicians, physician assistants and service and maintenance workers, among others.

About 2,500 members of that union originally had planned to strike, though the Illinois Labor Relations Board found Wednesday that just under 500 of those workers, many of whom work in health care, should be required to work because of the danger it could pose to the public. A court finalized that order in an injunction Thursday night.

Cook County Health said Thursday it was rescheduling some non-urgent appointments and procedures originally planned for Friday in anticipation of the SEIU strike.

Earlier on Thursday, more than 900 nurses at Cook County Health staged a one-day strike, forcing the health system to postpone some appointments and surgeries and send ambulances to other hospitals. A deal still has not been reached by Friday morning, although the nurses are now back at work and ambulance bypasses had concluded at Stroger Hospital.

On Friday, Cook County Health spokeswoman Alexandra Normington said non-urgent appointments and procedures were rescheduled, and patients with questions about appointments, tests or procedures scheduled for Friday should call 312-864-0200.

The labor disputes come as Preckwinkle’s administration on Wednesday projected a $121 million budget deficit for next year, compared with a deficit of $410 million this fiscal year, but she noted that $1 billion in federal stimulus aid could help close the gap.

SEIU officials said they would begin picketing at Stroger and Provident hospitals, Cook County Jail, the president’s office and the clerk’s office at 11 a.m. Friday.

Check back for details.

The Tribune’s Lisa Schencker contributed reporting.

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