January 14, 2005

Protest erupts over firing of firing of Local 743 hospital worker

No one leaving the Administration building at noon on Wednesday could have missed them. A group of approximately 50 University students, alumni, and staff convened on 58th and Ellis to march, beat on drums, wave banners, and, as one demonstrator did, carry a giant ax.

The protesters were clamoring for one goal: the reinstatement of Richard Berg, a University of Chicago Hospital worker and a former candidate for president in Teamsters Local 743, a group which represents many of the workers in the University hospital.

Berg was fired last week under accusations that he used sick days to campaign for his slate. Berg's slate, dubbed the "New Leadership Slate," continually accused Local 743's leaders of under-the-table negotiations that cheated the workers out of higher wages and health care benefits.

The current slate, led by Robert Walston, president of the 13,000-member organization, won by a scant 400 votes. According to a 12/05/04 Chicago Tribune article, there was a 50 percent increase in voting compared with the last count in October, union officials said. A previous election was halted in October because of complaints in election procedure; during that election, Berg was winning by seven votes, and 180 ballots had not been tallied yet. Berg's supporters have protested the results of the election.

"We are fighting for bringing back the dignity and respect of the workers," Berg said at the rally. "There are lots of immigrant workers who aren't getting any rights. We're out there for the benefit of workers, not to make deals in closed doors. In this union, we keep settling for stuff sub-par of other locals."

Last year, Local 743 was among six Chicago-area locals targeted by investigators amid allegations of corruption. Although the investigators recommended an in-depth probe, union officials in the National Labor Relations Board rejected the claims and the anti-corruption effort collapsed. Walston was unavailable for comment.

Many of the protestors at the rally, organized by Students Organized and United with Labor (SOUL), accused the University of siding with the union to get rid of Berg because of his opposition to the union's current leadership and accusations of corruption in Local 743. According to Alex Goldenberg, a fourth-year in the College, SOUL expected the Hospital to fire Berg, and planned the rally last Thursday on hearing Berg was terminated.

"I support Richard because unions in the U.S. are in crisis," said Joe Iosbaker, a service employee at the University of Illinois in Chicago Hospitals who was once Berg's co-worker and is a labor activist in Local 743. "Every union has to take on and fight for every worker. That's what Richard and the New Slate tried to do, promising no more sellouts to the management and to fight for wages. They're just singling him out as an example. "

John Easton, the spokesman for the University Hospitals in Media Affairs, said that Berg's termination was done appropriately and was consistent with Hospital workplace policies, not because he ran against the leadership of Local 743.

"We are always willing to listen carefully and with an open mind to any complaints filed by an employee," Easton said. "We will make every effort to assess Mr. Berg's grievance fairly and to respond appropriately.  However, we would not be favorably impressed by threats or harassing phone calls."

Members of SOUL, including Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a graduate of the College, have been working closely with Berg's campaign since last year's elections. According to Ginsberg-Jaeckle, SOUL has worked to promote Berg's call for a raise in wages with the cost-of-living benefits and more respect for the workers through tabling, phone-banking, and the dissemination of fliers.

Berg was impressed by the show of support he received from the students and workers for his reinstatement. Having spoken to students before at the March 2003 walk-out, which protested the Iraq war, and at a rally for John Kerry and Barack Obama, Berg said he was glad to see the energy for justice in students at the University.

"I'm glad to see that there are students willing to walk the walk, not just talking about doing justice but actually backing up these ethics outside of discussion," Berg said. "They also see that workers should be treated with dignity and respect. We've gotten a lot of support from students, alumni, and other workers who are committed to fighting for the cause."

Ginsberg-Jaeckle said that SOUL and the union activists will continue with protests of various forms, such as picketing, community outreach, and mass call-ins to publicize the issue in the University community.

Ginsberg-Jaeckle called Berg "a worker who has worked tirelessly to organize amongst his co-workers." He said an enlightened institution should embrace this positive action. "Instead, that institution is trying to get rid of Richard and to get rid of the movement for workers' rights on campus and in the hospital," Ginsberg-Jaeckle said. "Our goal is not just to reinstate Richard, but to show the U of C that with or without him, the struggle will continue to grow."