By Alice Yin Chicago Tribune

About 2,000 Cook County employees will end an 18-day strike and are returning to work Tuesday after a tentative agreement was reached on a contract, union officials said.

The work stoppage that began last month was the longest-ever for the Service Employees International Union Local 73 and also the longest public sector strike in Chicago’s recent history. It also frayed ties between labor-friendly Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and SEIU 73 as she and union leadership continued to ding each other Tuesday following an acrimonious negotiating period.

In an initial statement Tuesday morning, Dian Palmer, SEIU Local 73 president, hailed the pending deal as a victory for the union. But following pointed comments from Preckwinkle later on, she wrote in a statement that the county president furthered “a long history of disrespect of Local 73 members.”

“President Preckwinkle and her team consistently refused to negotiate with Cook County workers throughout this process — from equitable wages to fair treatment to a basic return-to-work agreement,” Palmer said.

Preckwinkle, who had responded to inquiries about the strike with assurances that the county has a good working relationship with its unions, said Tuesday that she was “disappointed” in SEIU 73′s leadership because the tentative deal was essentially the same one offered by the county two weeks ago. She said the total upgrades and salary increases amount to $5.8 million.

“I think unfortunately that there were damaged relationships as a result, and it will take some time to repair those,” Preckwinkle said in a call with reporters. “The contract that they agreed to is basically the same agreement from June 28 that’s been on the table for two weeks. I can’t tell you what their motivations are. I’ll just tell you that I’m disappointed.”

The pending agreement does not include two economic issues: raising wage floors for the lowest-paid workers or changing annual pay raise steps based on seniority. Those issues will be hashed out in arbitration by a neutral party panel, SEIU 73′s statement and Preckwinkle said.

But Preckwinkle added that her bargaining team has been pushing for arbitration since the start of the month, and she lamented that workers could have returned much earlier if they had taken her up on the offer when first introduced.

Earlier on a WBEZ radio segment, Palmer said the county was not prioritizing SEIU 73′s contract demands compared with the other unions that reached deals with Preckwinkle’s team that Palmer said amounted to an average 4% more in increases than SEIU got. The county board president dismissed those statements later, saying her administration’s offer to SEIU 73 was “in the same range” as that of the other groups, the local chapters of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Teamsters; National Nurses United; and the Fraternal Order of Police.

SEIU and county did come to agreement on other areas of pay including hazard pay, which includes temporary bonuses for front-line workers during the coronavirus pandemic. The four-year contract includes a total 8.5% raise over that duration. Seniority will also become a key factor in hiring and promotions.

SEIU 73 had been negotiating a new contract for about 10 months when its strike began June 25. The same employees also held a one-day work stoppage in December that Preckwinkle said “deeply disappointed” her because it happened during the pandemic’s winter surge.

Preckwinkle was endorsed by SEIU 73 during the 2019 mayoral race and received nearly $2 million from them in campaign contributions. During this most recent labor dispute, she struck a more neutral tone with both SEIU 73 and the nurses union, which held a one-day strike before coming to a contract agreement.

“I’m proud of our record of good working relationships with our labor unions for a decade,” she said the day before the SEIU strike began.

SEIU employees work in offices under the Cook County president, in the county clerk’s office, in civilian positions in the sheriff’s office and for Cook County Health. About 1,473 of those workers are part of Cook County Health, working at Stroger and Provident hospitals, clinics and in mental health services at Cermak, which provides health care to jail inmates. They include technicians, physician assistants and service and maintenance workers, among others.

The labor disputes come as Preckwinkle’s administration last month projected a $121 million budget deficit for next year, compared with a deficit of $410 million this fiscal year, but she noted that $1 billion in federal stimulus aid could help close the gap.

About 2,500 members of SEIU 73 originally had planned to strike, though the Illinois Labor Relations Board found in June that just under 500 of them, many in health care, should be required to work because of the danger a walkout could pose to the public.

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