POISED FOR ACTION: Sinai Health System service employees recently authorized their union, SEIU Healthcare Illinois, to call a strike if they can't negotiate higher pay and better staffing with their employer. | SEIU Healthcare Illinois

Roughly 400 nursing assistants, patient care technicians, dietary workers, therapists, drivers who transport patients and food service workers, among other service workers employed by Sinai Health System and represented by Service Employees International Union Healthcare Illinois are prepared to go on strike if they can’t reach an agreement with the hospital system. 

Around 97 percent of the workers — who represent a significant portion of service employees at Mt. Sinai Hospital, 1500 S. Fairfield Ave, and Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, 1401 S. California Ave. — voted to authorize the union to call a strike, SEIU officials said Oct. 2. The employees’ contract expired in June. 

With the strike authorization set, the union will now be able to give a strike notice to Sinai Health System, which owns both hospitals. Under the federal law, the union must notify the employer of a strike at least 10 days ahead of time. SEIU Healthcare Illinois spokesperson James Muhammad said that the union still hopes to avoid a strike, so hasn’t set a date for doing so.  

Muhammad said that the employees want higher wages and better staffing levels. He said that the current staffing levels are low enough to pose a safety risk for patients, and many employees earn so little they can’t even afford the insurance plan provided by the health system. The union also wants Sinai Health System to invest more in the communities it serves. 

Following the vote, Sinai Health System issued a statement expressing hope that a strike could be averted through negotiations.

“Sinai and the union have been in negotiations for approximately four months and have had multiple bargaining sessions, with progression toward signed agreements between the hospitals and the union,” Sinai Health stated. “We remain confident we will reach resolution on a final contract in the near future. As always, Sinai Health System is committed to our mission and will remain prepared through contingency plans to provide patients and the community high-quality care for them and their loved ones.”

As previously reported by Austin Weekly News, registered nurses, technicians and registry workers are notably among those represented by SEIU Healthcare Illinois.  Muhammad said that, if the strike happens, the non-union employees plan to join the picket lines in solidarity with their unionized colleagues. 

The nurses have been trying to get union representation through SEIU Healthcare Illinois for the past two decades. According to the National Labor Relations Board, employees can form a union one of two ways: by a majority of employees who would be included in the union voting to join or by the employer choosing to recognize the union without a vote taking place.

The nurses tried the former option in 2006 and 2007, and both votes failed. National Labor Relations Board records show that for the 2007 ballot, among the 508 eligible employees, 152 voted for unionization while 293 voted against it.

Muhammad said he didn’t know anything about either vote, so he couldn’t comment on them. But he said that, generally speaking, SEIU Healthcare Illinois pushed for voluntary recognition because they believed that, otherwise, Sinai Health System would try to intimidate employees into voting against.

“The hospital wants to be able to hold the nurses hostage, to be able to have workers where they can threaten them, give them anti-union [propaganda],” Muhammad said. “The motive for the hospital is to be able to threaten workers and make it seem like they would be fired if they want [to join] the union.” 

Sinai Health System spokesperson Dan Regan previously indicated via email that his employer preferred the vote by a secret ballot because it wanted to respect the wishes of the majority of nurses it employs.

Clarise Evans, a certified nursing assistant at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, stated that she has experienced the pitfalls of understaffing and the struggle to pay for her insurance first-hand. 

“I love my patients and I do my best,” she explained in the SEIU statement. “But I can’t begin to tell you how stressful it is to do your best when you’re doing the job of multiple people. You would think a hospital worker would be able to access healthcare without skipping paying other bills or putting groceries on the table. That’s why I voted yes.”

Regan said that, as of Oct. 4, Sinai Health System had nothing further to add beyond the statement the hospital put out after the strike authorization. 

Muhammad said the strike is a last resort for the workers. 

“We’ll continue the bargaining process,” he said. “We’ll continue to ask Mt. Sinai to come to the table and bargain fairly and address the legitimate concerns.”

CONTACT: igorst3@hotmail.com  

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...