Cook County Health's workers, nurses return to work touting contract wins

Cook County Health staff and nurses are back to work following dual strikes at the Chicago public health system and other county facilities.

The first, backed by SEIU Local 73, saw roughly 2,000 members walk off the job due to contract demands for greater pay and cheaper benefits. Many of these members were directly employed by the health system in roles such as care coordinators, medical assistants, medical technologists and food services workers.

SEIU Local 73 announced Tuesday that it had reached tentative agreements with the county “on most issues” that would end the 18-day strike.

The group said it secured demands regarding across-the-board raises and hazard pay, among other discussion points, but that issues tied to a higher wage floor and anniversary pay raise practices will be moving into arbitration.

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“The issue was never about going to work, it was about the conditions we were working in,” Sylvia Kizer, building service worker at Stroger Hospital, said in a statement. “We built solidarity across the county, job titles, education levels, and we became family. I can walk around with my head held high. This is a movement, not a moment, and we will never be the same.”

According to the Chicago Tribune, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said during a press call that the agreements translated to a $5.8 million increase for the county. She also said that she was “disappointed” in union leadership’s decision to extend the strike for 18 days as the majority of those agreements were “basically the same” as what the county had offered two weeks prior.

“I think unfortunately that there were damaged relationships as a result, and it will take some time to repair those,” she said during the call.

Cook County Health’s nurses, meanwhile, had conducted a one-day strike June 24 that similarly revolved around contract negotiations.

According to the National Nurses Organizing Committee (an affiliate of National Nurses United), the strike was instrumental to a four-year labor contract announced July 3. The union said that Cook County Health agreed to hire 300 additional nurses over an 18-month period, implement stronger infectious disease control and issue wage increases intended to support workforce retention.

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“This was a hard-fought contract, but we are very pleased with what we have been able to accomplish for our patients,” Tasha Mosley-Brown, a registered nurse at Stroger Hospital, said in a statement. “This win shows once again, that if nurses stand together and act collectively, we can create the change that improves our hospitals and serves our communities.”

Cook County Health—which runs Stroger Hospital and Provident Hospital of Cook County along with pharmacies, outpatient health centers and public health departments—said prior to the nursing strike that it had been forced to reschedule non-urgent and elective appointments as a result of the demonstration. It also turned to skilled agency nurses to shore up priority units.

Both strikes were softened by the Illinois Labor Relations Board, which ordered hundreds of nurses and workers to stick to their posts during the demonstrations due to “a clear and present danger to the health and safety of the public.”