Best of the CRANDIC Spotlight: SEIU Local 199 fights to secure ‘care for caregivers’

SEIU 199 representatives rally outside UnityPoint Health in Cedar Rapids, March 2021. — via SEIU 199 on Facebook
Best of the CRANDIC winner: Hardest Fightin’ Union — Union of Iowa’s Caregivers (SEIU Local 199)

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 199 is a union that fights for healthcare workers and other caregivers in Iowa. They conduct collective bargaining for wages and salaries, handle labor management issues and provide member benefits like providing insurance and navigating student loan debt.

Currently, the union has 4,500 members across six chapters: Aase Haugen Senior Services, Bettendorf Health Care Center, Finley Hospital, Hawkeye Area Community Action Program, Strawberry Point Lutheran Home and the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC).

Local 199 was founded in 1999, following the unionization of around 3,000 health care workers from the UIHC. Since then, it’s grown to encompass nursing homes and educational organizations. At UI they represent around 4,000 workers, primarily nurses and other specialty areas like physical therapists.

“SEIU has always been an advocate of creating change within our communities,” said Cathy Glasson, former Local 199 president. “… This country cannot function without workers being treated with dignity and respect on the job.”

In 2017, Iowa’s Republican-led state legislature and Gov. Terry Branstad passed a union busting law that placed restrictions on collective bargaining, going on strike and collecting union dues, which threatened to dissolve the UIHC union.

“We have shrunk a lot as a union since 2017. The legal constraints made it very difficult for us to keep up financially,” said Hannah Bott, an organizer and union representative. “We’re going to continue to do whatever it takes to build that power.”

The 2017 law gutted much of their progress at UI. Their current contract with the Board of Regents contains sections only for base pay and a 1.3 percent annual pay increase. There are no provisions for paid time off, holidays, overtime or retirement.

“One of the main things that we’ve been working on is staffing issues, which is a large problem facing hospitals across the country right now,” Bott said. “We’ve kind of reached a breakthrough point where they have started to agree with us that this is a really serious problem. And so we’re really working on doing what we can to build power within the university.”

University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics staff gathered outside on June 5, 2020 in solidarity with racial justice advocates. — UIHC on Facebook

At UI, Local 199 is fighting for all their members to receive raises and bonuses. A few weeks ago, a large portion of their bargaining unit, including in-patient care units, received raises, but many other workers were left out.

Recently, Local 199 has entered a servicing agreement with SEIU Healthcare Minnesota (HCMN) to help conduct their work. HCMN will help administer collective bargaining, provide union representation and build member strength. Local 199 is currently working to overturn the 2017 law.

Local 199 has also partnered with other organizations in Iowa to fight for workers. They joined the Fund Excluded Workers Coalition, and for months they have petitioned the city and county municipalities to provide COVID relief for excluded and essential workers, including immigrants and formerly incarcerated people.

“We’re really proud of that hard work and proud of being part of that coalition,” said Katie Biechler, a political coordinator and executive assistant. “We won $2 million at the county level. That’ll be going to those excluded workers who didn’t get stimulus checks, so we’re excited about that win.”

For now, SEIU Local 199 is going to continue fightin’ hard for the workers in Iowa.

“I’m hoping to see more worker respect, worker power and the building of a stronger labor movement,” Glasson said. “SEIU is really on the forefront of leading this work, and our local is all in. And I’m proud to be a retired Member of this organization. It’s the best union, and I love it dearly.”

The Fund Excluded Workers Coalition gathers outside the Senior Center to march into the Iowa City Council meeting and demand action on ARPA on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2021, in Iowa City, Iowa. SEIU 199 has shown support for the excluded workers movement. — Adria Carpenter/Little Village

Little Village Best of the CRANDIC is presented by City of Iowa City.

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