South Suburban Classified Unionizes with Local 1600
By Berdy Kuiken, Former South Suburban Classified Chapter Chair
In 1982 Dennis Dryzga, a Local 1600 Vice-President and faculty member at what was then called Thornton Community College, approached me about starting a support staff union. At the time other Community Colleges were beginning to organize their support staff. I was very interested in forming a union because the administration and faculty had been receiving raises above 5%, but the support staff were receiving much lower raises and there was an unfair merit raise system. Most importantly, there was no grievance system. The support staff was governed by an employee handbook that the administration created without any input from the employees.
Over next several months I spent countless hours talking with everyone on campus to gain support for a union. The IFT and Local 1600 also sent representatives to answer questions about unionizing and encourage employee support. Bob Breving from Local 1600 spent many hours on our campus explaining the benefits of having a union and how the working conditions would improve. I searched for fellow employees who would assist in the organization, and slowly, the interest grew and we knew a support staff union was a strong possibility. It was beneficial that the faculty was part of Local 1600 because they encouraged the staff. The administration was not happy with the movement and tried to set up barricades, using fear tactics. But, they were not successful.
In 1983, a consent election was held and the staff chose to be organized. AFSCME also came to the campus and tried to organize, but the staff realized the benefits of belonging to Local 1600. The faculty already belonged to the Local so we knew local 1600 would have better knowledge of the system, good resources and have our best interests at heart. In 1983, the Thornton Community College Support Staff Association was formally organized and recognized. When the College changed their name to South Suburban College, we became the South Suburban College Support Staff Association.
In 1983-1984, with the assistance of Bob Breving and Local 1600, we negotiated our first contract. It was a three year contract that took almost one year to negotiate. The first year we received an 8% raise, an increase in vacation and medical days, a voice in our insurance benefits, and most importantly, a grievance procedure. The College also agreed to pay for a Comparable Worth Study for all the employees. It was a huge victory that set up years of successful negotiations to follow. In fact, the contract that was negotiated in 2014 contains over 50% of the language that was negotiated by Local 1600 back in 1984!
Local 1600 History: How Classified Members came to join Local 1600
By Rose Sakanis, Classified Vice President
In 1984, a law was passed in Illinois giving public employees the right to organize to bargain collectively. Moraine Valley Classified was the first support staff chapter in Illinois to organize after the law was passed. They were also the first support staff chapter admitted into Local 1600. Since I was not an employee at Moraine Valley at that time, I interviewed Gail Wiot to get information for this article. Gail Wiot was a member of the steering committee who worked to organize the support staff at Moraine Valley. Following are recollections from Gail on the organization of the chapter.
The Moraine Valley Support Staff employees chose to organize to negotiate for better salaries, better benefits, safe working conditions, and equal treatment for the support staff employees at the college. The first steering committee was comprised of seven people. It was the steering committee who went about the process of getting members to sign cards showing that they supported unionization. As Gail recollects, “the deciding factor came when an administrator called a special meeting of all of the support staff employees to outline for them the reasons why organizing as a union would be a bad decision.” They were told that they did not need a union because the wages at the college were fair; they did not need a union because the benefits were good; they did not need a union because all the employees were treated equally. She further explained that back then it was the department supervisor who determined how much of a raise each employee would receive, and the money was not always distributed evenly among the employees. It was practices such as these that drove the employees to seek unionization.
Once the decision was made to unionize, the chapter was approached by three organizations who wanted their members. One of the organizations was CCCTU Local 1600. Three Moraine Valley faculty members approached the group asking them to join Local 1600. CCCTU President Norm Swenson and his assistant, Bob Breving, came to meet with the organizing group to persuade them to choose Local 1600 over the teamsters and the IFT. The group chose to go with Local 1600 because they felt it was important that they were united with the faculty and that they would have more support. After months of work and various meetings, which were all done after their regular work hours, the members voted in favor of unionizing and to join Local 1600. The decision on which support staff positions would be in the bargaining unit was determined by the Labor board. The chapter was officially organized in October 1984.
Once the process started, Gail explained, there was no turning back. Negotiations were extremely difficult. Negotiation sessions would begin at 4:00 p.m. and run straight through until at least midnight, oftentimes, much later. Afterward, each employee on the negotiating committee was expected to report to work the next day as usual. The fact that they were the first support staff community college chapter to organize in Illinois made their negotiations even more difficult. What language should they include in their contract? What benefits should they be seeking? There were no other contracts to refer to. The internet did not exist. Research took hours. The committee members attended numerous conferences held by the IFT and AFT often paying for their own expenses so they could learn all they could. But even then, support staff in higher education was a new entity to the AFT and IFT.
Moraine Valley Classified’s first contract was for two years. The negotiations for the second contract lead to the support staff’s first and only strike. The strike lasted one day. Members picketed in the pouring rain. One of the core team members, Gail Wiot, met with the faculty asking for their support. After a series of meetings, the administration saw that the faculty were in support of the staff and negotiations quickly began in order to bring an end to the strike.
South Suburban organized soon afterward, with Triton, Prairie State, Oakton and Morton following in their footsteps. Bob Breving was the Local 1600 organizer who worked with each of these colleges to organize their members and assist in contract negotiations. If you review each contract, you will see much of the same language negotiated in each of the classified/support staff contracts.
So now all of these chapters were part of Local 1600. Honestly, the transition of support staff into the Local was difficult at first. The faculty did not know how to deal with non-faculty in a union for teachers. It took almost 20 years after Moraine Valley joined Local 1600 before the Classified division were given the opportunity to elect their own Local Vice President. Most fittingly, the first Classified/Support Staff Vice President for Local 1600 was Gail Wiot. It took many years, but eventually we all learned to work together for the good of our members, our students, and our institutions. We are a better union now. The AFT and the IFT have also been beneficial to us in finding a way to address our issues and concerns at the various conventions and conferences that they conduct. As the current Vice President of the Classified Division, I am extremely proud to work with all of the Classified Chapter Chairs who work hard to represent their members every day.
As I wrote this article, it made me realize that many of our new members do not understand the importance of their union membership and where their benefits came from. All of the benefits negotiated in each contract are because many strong people from the past fought to unionize and negotiate fair raises, good benefits, and most important, safe working conditions for their members. This work was not easy, but it took strong people at each chapter to lead the way. What we need now are more strong people to join in to preserve the excellent benefits that are in each of our contracts. Happy Anniversary, Local 1600! Best wishes for fifty more years of union solidarity!