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May 30, 2023

SIUE workers find solidarity in contract fight

AFSCME members at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville (SIUE) are learning that a rising tide lifts all Cougars.

Though they have different jobs, are represented by different unions and have different needs, the administrative staff of AFSCME Local 2887 and the building service workers (BSWs) of Local 2232 are spreading solidarity across campus, standing arm in arm to support each other’s fights for better working conditions.

In all, 17 unions represent SIUE employees. Three—the two AFSCME locals and the non-tenure-track faculty—are currently bargaining contracts. But everyone shares the same goals: Improved pay, working conditions and staffing. As a result, where there once wasn’t so much as communication or coordination, the unions have started working together to win fair treatment and respect.

“We’re trying to foster solidarity. We have been talking to each other more now than our unions ever have,” said Julie LaTempt-Brazier, the president of Local 2887 and an office manager in the Department of Theater and Dance. “Everybody tried to operate in their own unions, but now we’ve all started to realize that there’s strength in numbers. The university needs to know we all stand together.”

AFSCME members have begun coordinating joint actions with the other union members. They’ve been leafletting outside university fundraisers and holding sit-ins, with more joint actions planned in the coming weeks.

“Every union is moving. It happened really fast,” said Tyler Toussaint, a BSW of six years and a member of Local 2232. “It’s very interesting, very exciting. It’s sad that it had to come to this, but it’s good that everyone has started working together.”

In the last year, 16 BSWs quit, but the university has only hired two to replace them. BSWs in AFSCME Local 2232 say they’re at the same staffing levels as they were in 2000, but the floor area they’re responsible for has grown by 600,000 square feet since then. Worse yet, high turnover leaves the more senior BSWs—people who can’t afford to lose out on their retirement benefits by switching jobs—to pick up the slack.

The university just broke ground on a new nursing school, which BSWs point out will have much more advanced maintenance needs than other buildings on campus. That means more workers are needed to get the job done—but, current BSWs say, the university must substantially raise wages to attract them.

“It’s been almost a year and a half without a contract,” Toussaint said. “We need that money to take care of our families. It used to be okay; now we’re barely hanging on. People are getting ready to lose their homes. People are working three jobs. It doesn’t have to be this way.”

While wages are the biggest issue in bargaining, the unions are also pushing for improved parental leave policies.

Rebecca Halford, Local 2232’s treasurer, recently gave birth to a baby. She fell ill during her pregnancy and had to take time off. Her baby had to spend more than seven weeks in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. Rebecca ran out of parental leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act and was forced to return to work or risk losing her job.

“I feel cheated out of my time with my newborn because we have no real maternity leave that is not covered by FMLA,” Halford said. “We’ve asked management to put something in our contract the last two times we have negotiated. SIUE says they don’t see a reason for it.”

LaTempt-Brazier could easily find another job with her qualifications that would pay more. But that job wouldn’t give her the sense of pride that she gets from serving the community she knows and loves.

“I’m a graduate of SIUE,” LaTempt-Brazier said. “This is home for me. I started a family and I moved back here and got a job at this university. Things were a lot better 17 years ago. When I do leave this place, I want it to be better than when I found it.”