The University of Illinois System is one of the largest public-sector employers in Illinois, with upwards of 40,000 employees across the state and an operating budget of $7.7 billion – almost half the budget of the City of Chicago. The University's three campuses serve nearly 100,000 students, its hospitals see 787,000 patient visits annually, and UI's decisions shape its surrounding communities. This is a vital public institution that has the power to transform the lives of students, patients, and workers across Illinois.
Instead, under the leadership of Rauner-appointed Board President Donald J. Edwards and UI President Timothy Killeen, the University is being run more like a business than a public trust. With private-equity CEO Edwards at the helm and most Trustees from the profit-driven private sector, it is no wonder that millions in taxpayer dollars are going to the coffers of private companies. The Board has the final say in every dollar spent on UI's multibillion-dollar budget; yet, as an unelected body, who holds them accountable for decisions that put corporate profits over the public good?
Under Edwards and Killeen, the Board has privatized jobs, prioritized capital projects, and diverted resources to for-profit ventures. Spending on capital projects has skyrocketed over the last five years, going from $25 million in 2018 to $615 million in 2022. These projects are largely public-private partnerships (PPPs), which translate into huge profits for wealthy developers, decreased oversight of public funds, and higher costs to taxpayers and students. Tuition has increased by over 267% in the last two decades, far outpacing increases at other public universities. The Board has approved extravagant raises for Killeen while refusing fair pay increases for workers – forcing UI staff, faculty, and graduate workers to authorize strikes twenty-five times in the last 15 years.
Now, UIC is attempting to privatize the jobs of over 100 building service workers at UI Health, UI's Chicago hospital. SEIU Local 73 represents these workers – along with nearly 5,000 others in the UI System – who were on the frontlines of the pandemic doing everything in their power to keep patients safe despite staffing and supplies shortages. Already, UIC has spent at least a quarter of a billion dollars on private contracts with custodial staffing agencies in the last ten years. Instead of conserving resources, listening to their workers, and partnering with SEIU Local 73 to improve campus facility cleanliness, UIC plans to give millions more of our public dollars to private companies.
In addition to being fiscally irresponsible, privatization harms workers and their communities. It threatens the livable wages, healthcare, job security, and retirement that union jobs provide. It lowers standards of patient care and decreases accountability for employers. Studies have shown that outsourcing hospital cleaning services is directly linked to poorer patient outcomes – particularly higher rates of healthcare-associated infections (HAIs), the most common complication of hospital care and one of the leading causes of death in the US.
Illinois families deserve fully funded state universities equally equipped to serve the public by providing quality and affordable education for students, quality healthcare and support for communities, and good-paying union jobs for the workers that make our state's universities run. That is why we at SEIU Local 73 call on the Board of Trustees and the leadership of the University of Illinois to respect the workers who make UI a world-class institution – to make transformational investments in our communities, not in private companies.
Join UI workers from Chicago to Champaign-Urbana who are fighting at the bargaining table and beyond for the UI to serve the public better. Today, we reaffirm our commitment to fighting for a University that values people over profits. And when we fight, we win.
Dian Palmer is the President of SEIU Local 73, representing 35,000 public service workers in Illinois and Indiana.
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