On Thursday, over 2,700 Chicago-area nurses and support staff at Cook County Health (CCH) are planning to go on strike, the latest example of rising worker militancy in the healthcare sector.
The National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC) and SEIU Local 73 — which respectively represent 1,250 nurses and 1,500 medical aides, therapists, technicians, clerks, housekeepers, food service workers and patient transporters at CCH — have each been in contract negotiations with the county since last fall.
Citing dramatic staffing shortages, the two unions are teaming up to demand CCH invest in employee recruitment and retention by improving pay and benefits.
Rather than investing in long-term employees, the unions say CCH has been increasingly relying on temp workers hired through staffing agencies like SnapNurse. With the threat of a walkout looming, management is aggressively trying to bring in even more temps to serve as strikebreakers.
In These Times obtained a text blast sent out by SnapNurse last week seeking prospective scabs. Referencing “a pending strike notice in Chicago,” the text message explains that strikebreakers will be paid between $4,620 and $6,468 per week — more than regular CCH nurses make. “Respond with STRIKE to deploy,” the message says.
CCH and SnapNurse did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but in an email to employees last week, CCH’s recently hired CEO Israel Rocha, Jr. said management was “taking all steps necessary to ensure the delivery of safe patient care in the event of a strike.”
“Nurses are at the breaking point throughout the Cook County Health system,” said Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room nurse at Stroger Hospital and a chief representative of NNOC. “We need more nurses on staff, and we needed them yesterday.”
Consisting of Chicago’s Stroger and Provident Hospitals, as well as over a dozen clinics in the city and suburbs, CCH is one of the nation’s largest public health systems. Its predominantly Black and Brown patients are often uninsured or under-insured, meaning they delay seeking care and therefore face critical health needs. Stroger Hospital, which has the busiest emergency room in Illinois, treats the highest number of Chicago’s gunshot victims (and was the setting of the hit television show ER in the 1990s).
The nurses and support staff say that instead of valuing their labor and listening to their concerns, the county has been dragging out negotiations, offering paltry raises that wouldn’t keep up with the cost of living and seeking to double the amount employees pay for health insurance.
“We are striking because we are tired of being mistreated, undervalued, underserved, disrespected and cast aside,” said Eugenia Harris, a ward clerk at Stroger Hospital and SEIU Local 73 member.
The nurses plan to be on strike for 24 hours, but may call more strikes in the near future. The SEIU Local 73 members — who already held a one-day work stoppage at CCH in December—intend to hold an open-ended strike.
“Our members are willing to strike for as long as it takes to achieve a fair contract,” SEIU Local 73 President Dian Palmer said. “It is time for Cook County to take these negotiations seriously.”
Over the past 15 months, healthcare workers have been on the front lines of the Covid pandemic, organizing and striking in states like Illinois, Washington and New York to secure adequate personal protective equipment and safer staffing levels. In Massachusetts, union nurses at St. Vincent Hospital have been on strike for more than 100 days — the longest nurse’s strike in the United States in over a decade. Meanwhile, thousands of previously unorganized nurses in North Carolina and Maine successfully voted to unionize in recent months.
The pandemic has fueled the uptick in healthcare worker militancy because it “revealed to a lot of us how little our employers care about our lives, and frankly how little they care about our patients’ lives,” Elizabeth Lalasz, a clinical nurse at Stroger Hospital and NNOC steward, told In These Times.
Throughout the pandemic, Vargas said, “hospital management has abused, disrespected and abandoned us. Because management treats nurses as expendable, we were not given adequate personal protective equipment, and over 150 of us tested positive for Covid-19.”
NNOC and SEIU Local 73 are calling on management to tap into some of the $998 million in federal funds Cook County is receiving from the American Rescue Plan to invest in the healthcare workforce.
“Every day we learn of another experienced nurse who resigned for a better job because Cook County has failed to provide them with the resources they need to provide the best care to their patients,” Vargas explained. “With each loss of an experienced nurse, we see years of skills and expertise vanish. In one six-week period, I saw a hundred years of experience walk out of my department.”
CCH CEO Rocha’s salary is $650,000 a year. His predecessor, who was dismissed by the Cook County Board of Commissioners in late 2019, received $542,000 in severance pay.
“It doesn’t make any sense for upper management to be making that kind of money when we desperately need people to be recruited and retained,” Lalasz said. “We need money for staff and support on the front lines, not for money to be given upwards, or pocketed.”
This would be the third time in the past two years that SEIU Local 73 went on strike in conjunction with a fellow union. In 2019, Local 73 workers at Chicago Public Schools hit the picket lines alongside their colleagues in the Chicago Teachers Union. And last year, 4,000 Local 73 workers at the University of Illinois at Chicago went on strike at the same time as hundreds of UIC nurses with the Illinois Nurses Association.
Besides its members at CCH, nearly 1,000 SEIU Local 73 members at Cook County Jail and other county offices are also set to strike on Thursday.
Both Local 73 and NNOC have expressed disappointment in Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, who is the ultimate decision-maker on management’s side. Preckwinkle, who doubles as the chair of the Cook County Democratic Party, unsuccessfully ran for Chicago mayor in 2019 on a pro-union platform with the backing of Chicago’s progressive unions.
“For years I’ve worked in politics, particularly with Toni Preckwinkle, who said she would work with the unions to ensure they had contracts with fair wages. She’s turned her back on us,” said veteran civil rights activist James Phipps, a Local 73 member who works at the county clerk’s office.
Preckwinkle did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but she issued a statement last week calling the staffing shortage at CCH “a mutually shared concern.” Regarding management’s demand to raise health insurance costs for workers, she said it has been six years since the last hike and that a new increase “is needed in this round of bargaining.”
“It doesn’t matter, you have a billion dollars in Covid relief money and yet you’re asking us to double our healthcare and only take a minimal increase in pay,” Lalasz said in response to Preckwinkle’s statement. “We shouldn’t be the people who are suffering…Without us doing the work we do, this hospital system will not function.”