The University is currently in negotiations with two other campus unions: SEIU, which represents Service and Maintenance, Clerical and Administration, and Technical workers, and UF, which represents tenure and non-tenure faculty. This post will give you a sense of the stakes of SEIU’s contract negotiation; a post to follow soon will cover UF.

SEIU members have annual raises built into their contract. Each year, they receive a 2% to 4% anniversary increase as well as a union-wide cost of living increase. Their “steps,” as they call them, mean that SEIU workers’ wages have kept up with the economy, rather than stagnating. The University is proposing that they do away with the anniversary increase and instead impose merit-based raises. There are three key issues with the University’s proposal:

No oversight. With anniversary increases, workers can reliably expect a 2% to 4% raise every single year. With merit-based raises, no such promise exists. It is not simply that workers might not “merit” a raise (whatever that means), it is that when the University determines which workers receive wages and when they do, it is quite easy for the administration to give no raises, or small raises, citing either poor performance or a tight budget.

Favoritism. Merit-based raises might work in theory. However, they are not applied fairly to all workers, regardless of their quality of work. In a perfect world, good employees would be rewarded for their hard work and dedication. UIC is no perfect world. More likely, raises will be given to employees whose departments are favored by the administration. With no oversight, workers will have no way to fight against favoritism.

Bifurcation. At the same time, the merit-based system will create a two-class union: those employees who routinely earn raises and those who do not. It makes the already difficult process of union organizing and negotiating much harder if the union is under a contract that puts them in two separate groups with two wildly different sets of needs.

Getting rid of the step system is part of a national trend to depress workers’ wages, turning more and more formerly middle class workers into the working poor. With the anniversary raise system, a worker who was hired in 1990 at $8.52 per hour now makes $21.48 per hour, which translates to just under $45,000 per year. While that is a decent wage, it’s worth noting that UIC’s SEIU workers are actually paid less than UIUC’s SEIU workers, despite the fact that cost of living in Chicago is much higher than in Urbana-Champaign. Had the University only given the worker general campus wage increases, she would be earning $13.88 per hour, which translates to $28,870 per year—a low wage for full time work and insufficient to raise a family in Chicago. At a recent negotiation session, UIC’s chief negotiator told SEIU’s team that “none of [SEIU’s] positions are underpaid.” While that statement isn’t exactly true–if workers doing the same job make more per hour downstate, then all UIC SEIU workers are underpaid–it will be patently false if the University succeeds in cancelling SEIU’s anniversary raises.

Furthermore, any attack on a union, whether it take place on campus, in Chicago, in Illinois, or in Wisconsin, Ohio, Nevada, Texas, or Georgia, is an attack on all unions. The degradation of workers’ rights to collectively bargaining threatens all workers, no matter what sector they work in. Nationwide, workers’ wages and rights are being taking away, leading to greater and greater economic inequality. We stand with SEIU not simply because they make our work possible by maintaining our buildings and grounds, managing the massive bureaucratic systems we work under, and ensuring our classrooms, offices, and labs have functional equipment. We stand with SEIU because we stand with all workers. We stand for the right to organize with our fellow workers, the right to collectively bargain, and the right to be paid a living wage for our labor.

When the SEIU wins, workers win. That includes the GEO. SEIU’s victory will directly affect our negotiations. Because the University negotiates separately with each union, individual successes and losses at the negotiating table have a profound effect on other contract battles. For example: when SEIU saves their steps, UF can demand a similar clause be put into their contract; after all, if SEIU gets it, why shouldn’t they? Likewise, when one union wins a major wage increase, it sets the stage for the next union’s negotiating team to start at that level. Our success at the table last year has paved the way for SEIU and UF to have successful campaigns this year; GEO can build on their successes when we head back to the table in two years.

Solidarity is an practical and ideological commitment. Show yours by coming to the UF/SEIU rally on Wednesday, January 22nd, at 9:30 AM, Student Center West. Their fight is our fight.