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Food, building workers on strike at U. of Illinois

John Hill (left) and other members of the Service Employees International Union at the University of Illinois walk a picket line Monday outside the Illini Union in Urbana.
John Hill (left) and other members of the Service Employees International Union at the University of Illinois walk a picket line Monday outside the Illini Union in Urbana.

CHAMPAIGN – Almost 800 building-service and food workers walked away from their jobs and onto the picket lines at the University of Illinois’s Urbana-Champaign campus Monday, unhappy over wages and other issues in a contract proposal from the school.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the strike was affecting campus, but an email sent to university staff warned that delays and disruptions were expected in campus mail pickup and at least some building services. The university said other employees were helping cover the duties.

The 775 members of the Service Employees International Union Local 73 said they plan to strike for three days, after rejecting the most recent contract offer from the university Sunday. The four-year contract included a 50-cent-an-hour raise in the first year with smaller raises in later years, said John Hill, a janitor who’s worked for the university for 11 years and said he makes just more than $17 an hour.

“That doesn’t keep up with the cost of living,” he said Monday morning as he and about a dozen others carried picket signs in 35-degree drizzle outside the Illini Union in the center of campus.

In Hill’s case, the raise would be about just less than 3 percent. The Consumer Price Index increased just less than 2 percent over the past year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

With increases in the cost of health care insurance that workers would have to take on, the offer “was still equal to a decrease in pay for everyone,” union spokesman Adam Rosen said.

To help keep the campus running, other employees – managers and hourly staff alike – had been moved from other jobs to work in dormitory dining halls and to take on janitorial work and other tasks usually performed by the building- and food-service workers, university spokeswoman Robin Kaler said.

“I went over and helped out with the lunch shift and it was very smooth and amply staffed,” said Kaler, who said she washed dishes in the 1,200-seat dining hall in the Ikenberry Commons, a collection of six dorms.

The email sent to university employees said that while some disruptions and delays were likely, the university would try to avoid any problems in services such as restroom cleanup.

The university has about 44,000 students in Urbana-Champaign and serves 20,000 student meals a day at its flagship campus, Kaler said.

The union and university have been negotiating over a new contract on and off since last spring. The current contract expired in July, and a federal mediator was called in last year.

In addition to wages, outstanding issues include provisions regarding retaliation against employees and the privatization of some work. Neither the university nor union officials would discuss details of the most recent offer.

Along with janitorial workers and those serving food to students and at university events, workers on strike also clean classrooms and dorms and deliver campus mail.

Rosen called the three-day strike a “preliminary strike to show the university how important we are to the university.” Without contract progress, he said, another strike is possible.

Many students who walked by striking university workers Monday said they knew little about their situation or why they were on strike.

Some expressed sympathy while noting that tight fiscal times — the university’s state support is dropping and the state now runs months behind in providing promised funding — are affecting many aspects of campus life.

“They deserve the benefits they get,” sophomore electrical engineering major Zach Widder of Antioch said, noting that he liked the dorm workers he was around when he lived in a resident hall as a freshman. That said, given current financial difficulties, “Everybody has to be cut at some point.”

Union members were joined at times Monday by graduate students who work for the university, who’ve had their own labor disagreements in recent years with the school.


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