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A Sluggish Union Wakes Up And Wins Concessions From Chicago’s Jewish Federation

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago reached a tentative agreement last week that obtained significant gains in salary and benefits for the union, which had languished for about a decade.

After 12 years of raises that averaged 2.2%, a revitalized leadership pushed for salaries more in line with their peers elsewhere. Some employees, including those with college degrees, needed second jobs to make ends meet according to officials. Full-time professional staff were going to food pantries and even selling plasma, according to the testimonials from members, said Lili Gecker, a social worker and union steward of Local 73.

“The union we are today is not the union we had three years ago,” she said. “We worked hard and I am proud of what we have accomplished…We will continue to organize and build our union and come back to the bargaining table next time ready to fight.”

Over the last year, membership has increased from about 300 employees to an estimated 520 — about half the total number of union-eligible Federation employees — including nurses, therapists, teachers, and development associates, according to Gecker. The new contract, if ratified, gives employees a 3 percent annual increase over each of the next three years.

The Federation said it was pleased that the negotiations had concluded “successfully,” according to Jay Tcath, an executive vice president.

The Federation – which serves more than 500,000 Chicagoans of all faiths annually – oversees a wide range of social services and programs at four non-profits, including the JCC, Jewish United Fund, Council of Jewish Elderly SeniorLife, and Jewish Child and Family Services – people who care for some of the community’s most vulnerable citizens.

“The day I learned that an undergrad just out of school was being paid more than me was the day I started organizing,” said the 28-year-old, who has a MSW from the University of Chicago.

Steven Windmueller, an emeritus professor at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, said that most federation unions consist of hourly employees; only a small number of include clinicians and other professional staff among their membership. 

As for the increased demands for better pay and benefits, Windmueller said the push reflects the increased power of women in society broadly. Women’s educational attainment has surpassed men’s at the college level, and glass ceilings are cracking across the economy, albeit slowly. Many of the professional, salaried jobs in the Chicago Federation — such as early child and elementary teachers — have been traditionally held by women. Another factor: The Me Too movement has increased awareness of workplace protections.

“This is a recalibration…it’s about achieving equity in the Jewish world,” said Windmueller, who, during his career, has worked for federations in upstate New York and Los Angeles.

Before sitting down at the negotiating table in Chicago, Gecker and her bargaining team surveyed hundreds of co-workers and found that salaries were a major grievance. Some pre-school teachers were making $15 per hour and teaching assistants were typically earning $12 to $14 hour – far less than their peers at Chicago Public Schools, despite the fact that tuition at Federation pre-school programs can run $27,000 a year.

“It was heartbreaking… and I think management was moved,” Gecker said.

Other employee concerns included reasonable workloads, paid time off and affordable health care. Many employees told the union that they’d had to choose an individual plan and put their child on Medicaid.

That Jewish organizations lag so far behind other non-profits is particularly disheartening, since the Jewish community has such a rich history in the labor movement, said advocates, noting that justice and granting dignity to workers by paying fair wages are also intertwined with our faith.

One example of how Jewish values drove the bargaining process was the argument for increasing the three-day bereavement leave. “We pointed out that people who observe Shiva would not have enough days to mourn and management couldn’t argue with that logic.”

Gecker recruiting some 40 rabbis and community leaders across denominations to sign a letter of support to Federation management. 

“It’s time we look inward at our own institutions and hold people accountable,” she said.

Bonnie Miller Rubin is a freelancer and a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

Correction, December 27, 2:50 p.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that members of the Federation bargaining unit had received 1% annual raises and also that some had put their children on Medicare. In fact, they put their children on Medicaid, and while some years saw raises of 1% or less, the average raise over the last 12 years was 2.2%.


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