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Home » Symphonic Services Division » Ain’t No Stoppin’ the Hot Labor Summer

Ain’t No Stoppin’ the Hot Labor Summer


by Adam DeSorgo, AFM Symphonic Services Division Negotiator

Chicago has historically been a stronghold for labor. From the Haymarket Affair in 1886 that crystallized the campaign for the eight-hour day, to the Chicago Teacher’s Union strike in 2012, this tradition continues to the present day. Labor has one of its own as the mayor of Chicago. Brandon Johnson, a social studies teacher and organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), won an upset victory against heavily favored Paul Vallas, formerly a superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools. Additionally, voters in Illinois approved the “Workers’ Rights Amendment” that effectively bans so-called “right to work.”

It’s hot labor summer right now, although much of the heat is focused on the West Coast. Joining the Writers Guild of America (WGA), the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) has gone on strike, fighting against onerous proposals in the way producers want to use artificial intelligence (AI) and human scanning. This is not dissimilar to how KeyComp and other such technologies threaten the livelihoods of musicians.

I am continually inspired by all the musicians with whom I’ve worked; by their resilience and strength, while facing intransigent and hostile managements. I’ve also been inspired to look to other unions in my newly adopted city. These workers face very similar kinds of challenges. They not only have the same moxie in standing up to their employers, but they also look at how their fights connect with their broader communities.

Labor has been hot throughout the year in the Midwest, even during the winter. This January, non-nursing workers at Chicago’s Howard Brown Health held a three-day strike after the company laid off 61 of its recently unionized employees. Howard Brown Health (HBH), founded in 1974, focuses on care for LGBTQ people and other at-risk communities. Today, HBH has grown to 12 clinics, a youth center, several thrift stores, and is currently building a 71,000-square-foot building in the Northalsted neighborhood. They serve about 30,000 patients annually, providing primary care, as well as specialized services including HIV testing and care.

Workers had voted to unionize with the Illinois Nurses Association with 97% in favor, becoming one of the largest health care unions created in Chicago over the last decade. When HBH implemented the layoffs, the workers took to the streets, with many nurses also picketing in support. They coordinated a limited action, picketing over three days at different locations across the city. The picket line I joined in my neighborhood was vibrant and engaging. It was encouraging to see many passersby stop to ask questions and show support. Ultimately, the strike raised awareness of how a supposedly progressive organization can still abuse its workers.

While teachers, nurses, and health workers have well known campaigns, workers in other industries have organized. Cannabis dispensary retail workers recently organized with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 777. According to the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, the state recorded $1.5 billion in cannabis sales in 2022. However, entry-level retail jobs in the industry typically pay substandard wages. In April, about 100 cannabis retail workers at three Rise Dispensary locations went on strike demanding better wages and conditions. After 13 days, they were able to win wage increases up to 50%.

In Bedford Park, Illinois, a suburb just south of Midway Airport, members of the International Union of Electrical Workers-Communications Workers of America Local 14430 began striking on June 5. The employees of the Northstar Aerospace plant make parts for military helicopters. The issues of the strike are wages, ending two-tier health insurance, stricter discipline and attendance policies, and an employer proposal to limit overtime pay. While the strike continues into its second month, the workers are receiving support from many other unions, including the United Auto Workers Local 588, who had struck and won a first contract at a nearby steel plant. Chicago’s own Scabby the Rat has also made appearances at their picket lines.

Starbucks workers, having organized several locations in Chicagoland, have gone on strike in the Greektown location near the West Loop. They were joined recently by other members of Starbucks Workers United as part of their “The Union is Calling” bus tour. Workers at the Chicago Roastery, the largest Starbucks in the world, filed for a union election and demonstrated outside of the store on Michigan Avenue.

There have also been strikes among workers in higher education. In January, the University of Illinois Chicago’s faculty, members of the UIC United Faculty Local 6456, were able to win significant pay increases and stronger job protections after a 10-day strike. According to an article in Block Club Chicago by Mack Liederman and Colin Boyle, salaries increased from $51,000 to $60,000 for nontenured faculty, (a 17% increase) and from $65,000 to $71,500 for tenured faculty. As part of the deal, the university made a handshake agreement to expand mental resources for students on campus.

Education strikes and actions in Chicago often demand robust resources for students in their campaigns. A hallmark of the 2012 CTU strike was the demand to keep schools serving Black and Brown students open, as well as adding more nurses and counselors for those schools. In April, faculty and staff at Chicago State University, members of the University Professionals of Illinois (UPI) Local 4100 went on strike, demanding higher wages, and manageable workloads, among other working condition improvements.

CSU is the only public university on the South Side of Chicago and has more Black students than any other public school in the state. According to an article in the South Side Weekly by Savannah Hugueley, CSU lecturers have the lowest average salary of any Illinois state university, as low as $37,000 annually, compared to the average Illinois faculty salary of $95,670. Incoming mayor Brandon Johnson picketed with the striking teachers as well. Hugueley wrote that the workers picketed to McFadden & Whitehead’s “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” echoing the sentiment that brought everyone to the picket line that day: “If you’ve ever been held down before, I know you refuse to be held down anymore.”

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