CHICAGO – After working for six months without a contract, 4,000 Cook County employees walked off the job on July 11 for a one-day strike. The workers, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) District Council 31, are seeking higher wages and better health-care benefits. The walkout was the first ever official strike by county workers.

“We are hoping to get Commissioner John Stroger’s attention and to show them that we can shut the county down,” AFSCME Local 3486 President Jim Dunaway told the World at a spirited picket line at the county courthouse. “We hope they will come back to the table with a decent proposal for our members.”

Pickets were set up at 24 work locations, with postal workers and United Parcel Service drivers refusing to cross. Civil rights attorney Lewis Myers also refused to cross the picket line and was cited for contempt.

The workers – including clerks, juvenile and adult probation officers, social workers, assistant public defenders, parole officers, investigators and hospital workers – have been negotiating for 10 months and are frustrated by the lack of progress. Meanwhile commissioners voted themselves a 33 percent salary increase and Stroger a 48 percent increase.

“If Stroger can find a decent pay raise for himself, he can find the money for us, too,” said Dunaway.

Despite insistence that the county would be open for business without problems, the strike disrupted operations everywhere. Many courtrooms shut down altogether and at one point 500 county inmates were stranded in court after being processed.

Originally two Service Employee International Union (SEIU) locals representing 4,000 county hospital workers were to join the AFSCME locals on strike. But a last-minute contract settlement kept SEIU from walking out.

The county is offering the workers an 8.5 percent wage increase over three years. However, the proposal doesn’t make provisions for increasing health care costs and what portion employees would be obligated to pay. During the last contract, workers paid $800 annually in health care insurance. The county is demanding that co-payments be added and increased for doctor visits and prescirption drugs.

The county has complained that health insurance costs are skyrocketing at 13 percent annually, creating a $21 million budget deficit. Originally they wanted the workers to pick up the entire tab. The county is also maneuvering to discourage workers and their families from seeking medical attention.

“What on paper is an 8.5 percent increase could be no wage increase at all, depending on what we have to pay,” said one striker. “There’s no way we can accept that.”

Cook County finances have been impacted heavily by the deepening state budget crisis and loss of revenues stemming from the economic crisis. A statewide coalition of dozens of labor and community groups protested throughout the spring against Republican Governor George Ryan and the Republican-dominated Senate. Taxing the rich became a mass demand of the movement. Despite the protests, the state will close a $2 billion deficit through deep cuts to social programs and elimination of 3,500 employees.

“This is a fight we are all in, the public as well,” said Dunaway as car horns blared in support of the strikers. “Everyone is deserving of decent wages and health benefits.”

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