Employees express optimism, concern about potential Park District strike

The Nichols Park fieldhouse, 1355 E. 53rd St., on Sept. 27. (Photo by Aaron Gettinger)

Staff writer

Unionized Chicago Park District employees, whose contract ended last year, have voted to authorize a strike that could seriously interrupt park upkeep and services in Hyde Park-Kenwood.

According to a spokesman for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, 94% of voters authorized the strike, with turnout at almost 90%. The union would have to give 5 days’ notice before beginning the strike. SEIU represents 80% of Park District employees, about 2,400 people.

Wages and benefits are among workers’ central concerns. SEIU says that some high-ranking Park District employees stand to receive 20% wage increases while lower level employees are expected to contribute more to their health insurance plans.

“Our members in the Park District over the last decade have sacrificed a lot to support the parks during years of austerity and financial crisis,” said Larry Alcoff, the lead SEIU negotiator. He said raises have not come every year and that, when they did come, most were 1% or 2%.

“Now that the economy is turning around, these workers need to be able to live in Chicago — they’re required to live in Chicago — and they need wages that are more meaningful in their life,” he continued.

A statement from the Park District expressed their appreciation for the SEIU members working there and that months of negotiations have resolved most non-economic issues and made “significant progress to improve working conditions … and to extend a significant wage increase for our lowest-paid workers over the next 5 years,” specifically a 28% increase for hourly attendants, 21% for hourly instructors and 15.5% for hourly recreation leaders.

Alcoff said that 5-year raise proposal equals 2% annually while top of management are set to receive up to 20% raises this year. (The Park District did not confirm that figure.) Longevity does not factor into employees’ wages, and the Park District is rejecting proposals to include longevity steps for employees’ years of service, he said.

Full-time Nichols Park Supervisor Ayanna Peters — one of two local Park District workers whom SEIU made available for an interview who has spent two decades working for the entity — said she supports the strike, saying the upper management’s supposed wage increase opened the rank-and-file’s eyes.

“There has to be a backing for the people who make this city run,” she said. “Between the police department, the schools — everybody who helps make this city work are now the ones getting kicked in the rear end when it comes to trying to help us create a living wage and take care of our families.

“We take care of everybody else’s families with after-school programs and programs for seniors and programs for toddlers. But then when it comes to us, we are kind of left waiting in the wind.”

Another issue is health insurance, which Alcoff said is provided to all full-time workers and a small percentage of the part-time workforce — whom he said comprise two-thirds of Park District year-round workers. He said employees’ health care costs would double over the next four years even though the Park District is only expecting a 17% increase in health care costs.

Peters said she was prepared to strike over the increase in health insurance costs. She said Park District employees pay for a portion of their insurance out of their salaries and that her co-pays are set to double or triple.

As a mother with a special needs daughter, she said a spike in health care costs would cause her grave financial consequences.

While full-time landscapers and attendants make $40,000 to $41,000 annually, part-time employees make around $21,000 a year and recreation leaders $13,800, Alcoff said — all without vacation time, holiday pay, health insurance or a “path to a higher-paid position.”

Sonia Smith, an $18-an-hour part-time physical instructor at Nichols Park who has worked at the Park District for 14 years, said opportunities for advancement are few and far between and that she was prepared to strike for a livable wage.

“I make a decent amount, but by the time you pay all the bills, by the time we pay everything everybody gets … you have nothing left,” she said. “We do the best we can. I’ve learned to budget with the best of them, and I’ve tried to make ends meet. But again, we’re looking for something to be comfortable.”

“I’m not asking for the moon. I’m just asking for a livable wage,” she continued, adding that some colleagues are working two jobs to make ends meet and that she is considering doing so herself.

While the Park District said that contract negotiations have occurred in good faith, Alcoff said charges have been filed with the Illinois Labor Relations Board about employees who have been bullied, threatened, harassed or disciplined over the course of negotiations. The Herald could not confirm details with the ILRB, and the Park District is looking into the allegations.

Collective bargaining is occurring in the shadow of Illinois’ pension crisis. “The Chicago Park District must also address a more far-reaching urgency, our spiraling pension fund that could become bankrupt by 2026 unless we act to resolve it today,” said spokeswoman Michele Lemons. “As we move forward, we will continue to work toward an agreement that is mutually favorable for the Chicago Park District, its valued employees and city taxpayers.”

Alcoff responded that the potential strike is because of choices made by the city and Park District. He said the former takes $4 million annually out of the latter’s budget to pay the Chicago Police “for work that they have to perform anyway in the Chicago parks, since the Chicago parks are inside the City of Chicago.” He called that money “a skim out of the park budget that’s not invested in the parks.”

The pensions “are woefully underfunded partly because the Park District, for a long time, was complacent with having a very-low contribution rate from the management, from the employer, into the fund, so that it could not possibly be adequately funded as people started to retire,” he said.

He observed that Illinois public-sector employees are not eligible for Social Security benefits. “The part-timers get [pensions], too, but if you’ve for two-thirds of the workers making $21,000 and they’re paying 9% of that into the pension, which means they don’t have as much take-home pay, you can imagine how low their pension is,” he said.

And he attacked the Park District administration for its planned multimillion-dollar headquarters in Brighton Park on the Southwest Side. The Park District sold its Streeterville headquarters, 541 N. Fairbanks Court, in 2015, and the Sun-Times reported that it has been paying rent on the property since April 2018.

Alcoff said a work stoppage would not be a one-day strike and that it would employ “active picketing, active disruption, active noise.” He said there is “a likelihood” that it would be coordinated with a Chicago Teachers Union strike.

“For the parks, for the schools, the buck stops at the Mayor’s office, and she has to really decide: is she a mayor who represents working class communities and workers who do the work that is important to communities, or is she going to be a mayor who continues being a mayor of the 1%, like in the Emanuel period?” he asked.

The possibility of contemporaneous strikes by two Chicago institutions that provide services to children was of concern to another Park District employee at a local park, one who voted against the strike and requested anonymity.

“I got kids in school as well,” the source said. “It’s a hot mess. It’s a good bargaining tool for the unions, when they’ve got both unions waging a strike against the city, but what about the kids?”

The source conceded that pay increases over the years have not been sufficient and complained about rising health insurance costs but expressed concern for hourly workers, who have the most to lose because of their lower pay and lack of benefits: “If this thing lasts over a week or two, where are they going to eat?”

A previous experience with a strike also left the source hesitant about one at Chicago’s parks: “We were crushed. I was glad I was young enough to recover, but a lot of older people never did. They ended up in poverty.”

Smith said she is putting money aside in the event of a strike: “It’s not a lot, but I’m going to have to maintain and go off in faith that we will make a unanimous and agreeable decision so we don’t have to prolong this for too long.”

And for her part, Peters asked the local community for understanding during the potential work stoppage.

“It’s unfortunately a necessary evil … to get to this point, to show upper management that they are stepping on us, when we’re the people who make the parks run smoothly,” she said. “We’re not doing this to be selfish. It’s just time.”