UI Quad

Students and staff walk across the Quad on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, on the University of Illinois campus in Urbana.

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URBANA — Hundreds of food-service and building-service employees at the University of Illinois could vote next week to authorize a strike over their pay and working conditions, according to Service Employees International Union Local 73.

Negotiations that have been underway since November stalled last month, and the next step will be holding a strike-authorization vote Saturday, according to Ricky Baldwin, chief negotiator for the union's UIUC Chapter 119.

Both sides are set to begin meeting with a federal mediator next Tuesday, Baldwin said.

If union members authorize a strike, that doesn't mean they will necessarily go on strike, he said. A vote for strike authorization would give the negotiating team the authority to issue a strike notice if progress isn't made through mediation — though the team would go back to members with the UI's latest offer before a strike is called.

The union is handling negotiations for new contracts on behalf of about 700 food-service and building-service workers at the local campus.

Major issues include understaffing for building-service workers and seasonal layoffs for food-service workers, Baldwin said.

Food-service workers are laid off four times a year — for a week at Thanksgiving, a week during spring break, a month over winter break and three months in the summer.

While they're laid off, food-service employees aren't entitled to unemployment benefits and must still pay their share of their health-insurance premiums. But many don't earn enough to cover their bills and are on public assistance, Baldwin said.

"I am fed up with the disrespect of the university," said Chapter 119 President Dena Gary, head cook at the UI's local campus. "We the workers are planning to do whatever it takes, including authorize our bargaining committee to call a strike if necessary."

Another issue is pay, according to the union. What individual food-service and building-service workers earn depends on their longevity at the UI, but building-service workers generally earn about $35,000 a year and food-service workers earn about half that, Baldwin said.

The UI offered a raise of 18 cents an hour, he said.

UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said significant progress has been made since the bargaining process started Nov. 9, 2018. An agreement has been reached on all non-economic items and the UI hopes to reach a new agreement before the current one expires July 28, she said.

"We value the critical contributions of our building service workers and our food-services workers in delivering our educational and research missions," she said. "The health and safety of all of our staff, faculty and students is always our top priority. Our commitment to the protection of every member of our community is absolute and never something we would allow to be diminished through any negotiation."

UI food-service and building-service workers last went on strike in 2013, causing the university to declare a state of emergency and suspend civil-service rules, according to the union.

SEIU Local 73 represents more than 29,000 workers employed mostly in public service and publicly funded positions in school districts, municipalities and social-service agencies in Illinois and Indiana.

Reporter

Debra Pressey is a reporter covering health care at The News-Gazette. Her email is dpressey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow her on Twitter (@DLPressey).