Univ. of Chicago workers demand fair contract

CHICAGO — Sharon Mikulich, a clerical worker for the Law School at the University of Chicago, has worked there for 31 years. An active member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 743, she was an original bargainer for the union when it was founded in 1979. She comes from a union family.

On her lunch hour, Mikulich joined dozens of other University of Chicago workers, students and supporters in an Oct. 19 picket line outside the university’s International House.

Inside, university officials and Local 743 have been negotiating a new contract, which Mikulich and supporters say is unfair. So campus student-labor solidarity groups, along with university workers of Local 743, have joined forces to insist the university meets their demands.

The union says the university’s offer of a 3 percent annual wage increase does not keep up with inflation. The workers are demanding 4 percent, which they say would cost the school less than $400,000 a year. This is less than the salary and benefits enjoyed by many university administrators.

“Groceries, gas, and rent have all gone up and 3 percent does not match the cost of living at all,” said Mikulich. Health care costs and premiums are also rising, she added.

Mikulich said job security and step increases in a multi-tier system of workers are also problems on campus.

“Unions are very important to me and young people need to know the importance of a union,” said Mikulich, who expressed appreciation for the student-labor solidarity that this campaign has produced.

“I’d like to see everyone here organized,” she added.

Contract talks started last January, and the workers have now been without a contract for six months. Though past contract negotiations have gone well, this year the university is refusing to accept the workers’ demands.

Joe Sexauer, 29, a leader of Local 743, said the workers voted down the university’s last proposal by 90 percent.

“The demand is money, but it’s really about respect and the cost of living,” said Sexauer. “The contract has been getting worse,” he added. “The university’s offer is really insulting.”

Sexauer said many students, including African American student groups, have been very supportive of the workers. He said putting pressure on the school management is key.

A university employee since 1973, Mary Caraway works in the press, books and journals department. Though not a member of Local 743, she said she was at the picket line to support the workers’ demands.

“You don’t have to be a union member to support the union,” said Caraway. “The university should realize that the union is an ally, not an antagonist, and hard workers deserve respect.”

A larger rally organized by Students Organizing United with Labor is scheduled for Oct. 31.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Labor announced Oct. 22 that Richard Berg and his New Leadership Slate won Local 743’s recent elections. Berg and the New Slate, which will take office next January, beat the incumbent Ford-Galvan Unity Slate. The newly elected officers are expected to take on long-standing problems of corruption in the local.

plozano @pww.org