Cook County healthcare workers to strike next week

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Cook County workers and nurses in Chicago plan to strike on or after June 24, according to the unions that represent them. 

The strike will involve nurses represented by the National Nurses Organizing Committee, an affiliate of National Nurses United, as well as social workers and other employees represented by SEIU Local 73 who work at Cook County Health, Chicago's public healthcare system. 

SEIU Local 73 said workers will strike at Stroger and Provident hospitals, as well as at the Cook County Jail and county highway maintenance facilities. 

Union members said they don't want to strike but feel they need to. 

"I voted to strike because it is time for change," Eugenia Harris, a ward clerk at Stroger, said in a news release. "We are fighting for a contract that provides safe and adequate staffing. A contract that provides equal pay for equal work. A contract that will make Cook County an employer of choice."

News of the strike comes during negotiations for both unions. SEIU Local 73 has been in negotiations for more than nine months, and the National Nurses Organizing Committee has been in negotiations since October.

The National Nurses Organizing Committee said the largest sticking point for nurses in negotiations is a failure to address persistent staffing shortages throughout Cook County Health.

In a news release, Consuelo Vargas, an emergency room RN at Stroger, said: "Many patients have gone without care during the pandemic and are now beginning to seek treatment for their ongoing medical conditions. Yet we are constantly understaffed, and because of that, we are losing experienced nurses."

Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle acknowledged the strike notices and addressed workers' concerns.

"Cook County fully understands our nurses are striking over staffing shortages. Let us be clear: this is a mutually shared concern. Before COVID, there was a nationwide shortage of nurses. The pandemic has only compounded this shortage — exponentially," Ms. Preckwinkle said in a statement shared with Becker's. "Now, not only do we have a nursing shortage, but because of the devastation wreaked by the pandemic, we have shortages in critical healthcare and first responder positions."

She also referenced the other challenges faced during the pandemic, such as providing personal protective equipment, teleworking and pandemic pay. She said Cook County "has been able to work through these challenges with our union partners while dealing with COVID, floods and so much more."

Additionally, Ms. Preckwinkle addressed workers' concerns related to a proposed increase in their employee contributions for healthcare. She said an increase has not been sought in six years, but it is needed in this latest bargaining round.

"Cook County will continue to bargain in good faith to reach fair, reasonable and equitable collective bargaining agreements with all the unions representing its employees," said Ms. Preckwinkle.

SEIU Local 73 represents 2,449 workers in Cook County, including workers in Cook County Health at Stroger and Provident. The National Nurses Organizing Committee represents 1,250 nurses throughout Cook County Health.   

All Cook County workers represented by SEIU Local 73 are scheduled to strike indefinitely on or after June 24. The National Nurses Organizing Committee said it will strike for one day, on or after June 24.

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