URBANA — Hundreds of food-service and building-service employees at the University of Illinois are threatening to strike on fall move-in day later this month if they can’t reach a contract agreement with the university.
About 50 members of SEIU Local 73 hand-delivered a notice to the UI president’s office at the Henry Administration Building on Thursday afternoon, saying workers plan to strike on Aug. 22 — the day most incoming freshmen move into the residence halls — “if nothing changes at the bargaining table.”
The two sides are scheduled to meet again this morning.
Workers plan to hold a vote on the university’s latest offer after the negotiating session. If they reject it, the strike will begin at midnight Aug. 22. UI classes begin Aug. 26.
“We are optimistic that we’ll be able to reach an agreement,” UI spokeswoman Robin Kaler said Thursday.
The union’s announcement was strategic, with leaders aware that their biggest leverage is when students return to school.
“It also shows how much the workers matter to the day to day of the university community,” said SEIU spokesman Jesus Canchola Sanchez.
The union is handling negotiations on behalf of about 700 food-service and building-service workers at the local campus. They cook, clean, move furniture and wax floors, among other jobs.
Negotiations started in November but stalled in May. Union members authorized a strike on June 29, and a federal mediator was brought in last month. The previous contract expired July 28.
“I think tomorrow’s really crucial,” Sanchez said Thursday afternoon, adding that the union is negotiating in good faith but is also serious about the issues still on the table.
Those include wages, understaffing for building-service workers and seasonal layoffs for food-service workers, according to chief negotiator Ricky Baldwin. Kaler said parking rates are also still being negotiated.
The campus has prepared for a possible strike on Aug. 22, Kaler said.
“Our goal is always minimal disruption to operations and having no impact on our students,” she said. “We hope that it doesn’t come to that, but if it does, we will be ready.
“We definitely expect an agreement before then. We know the union is working very hard to find that common ground,” Kaler said.
The union’s last strike lasted for three days in March 2013.
Union leaders said understaffing continues to be a concern for building-service jobs. Many workers are covering the jobs of two or three vacant positions, resulting in more injuries, stress and general dissatisfaction with the quality of work because there aren’t enough workers to do it properly, they said.
The seasonal layoffs affect food-service workers. They are laid off four times a year: a week at Thanksgiving, a week during spring break, a month over the winter break and three months in the summer. During that time, they’re not eligible for unemployment benefits and must continue paying for health insurance, the union said.
Some workers do take on temporary UI jobs at summer camps and conferences. But the union said the work isn’t steady or full-time and is often insufficient to cover bills.
Many union members are on public assistance, and those jobs aren’t enough to cover bills, Baldwin said.
Union proposals include providing other work for those employees during breaks or allowing them to accrue vacation days to use during layoff periods.
The workers’ pay 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, according to Baldwin.