Workers at Howard Brown Health clinics and Brown Elephant retail stores went on strike Tuesday in Chicago, citing unfair labor practices as contentious contract negotiations near an end.
Members of Howard Brown Health Workers United gathered to picket outside Howard Brown’s Sheridan, Halsted and 63rd Street clinics, reinforced by honking horns from delivery drivers. The strike is expected to last for two days.
“Our staff can’t pay our own bills,” said Louis Spraggins, partner services coordinator for Howard Brown and a member of the bargaining committee. “… We need to take care of ourselves to take care of all of you.”
Clinics will remain open during the strike, and all patients with appointments will be seen. Registered nurses at Howard Brown concluded a separate three-year contract in September 2022. Both unions work with the Illinois Nurses Association.
“When our community members seek our care, they rely on us to meet their essential health care needs,” said Katie Metos, vice president of external relations, in a Tuesday’s Tribune statement. “We are committed to being a trusted pillar of care for our communities.”
Striking workers continue to call for the disinvestment of Howard Brown’s locations on the South Side, which includes three clinics out of eight on the North Side. A new $53 million North Side clinic has opened at 3501 N. Halsted St. in September, focusing on dentistry and primary care.
On the North Side, “You can throw a rock over your shoulder and hit another medical provider,” Spraggins said.
Meanwhile, South Side clinics are infested with rats and bugs, Spraggins said.
Other patient appointment times were also reduced from 40 to 20 minutes. The union said management refused to formalize the 40-minute appointment in the contract.
“We’re asking Howard Brown’s leadership to truly treat us like the valued employees we are,” Spraggins said.
Tuesday’s strike was authorized by 96% of Howard Brown Health Care Workers United members in an October vote. The workers are also asking Chicago residents to boycott Brown Elephant retail locations as of November 4.
Brown Elephant stores have not seen a significant drop in retail sales since the boycott began, said spokeswoman Wren O’Kelley.
Howard Brown’s management made a final contract offer last week. Management and union members previously agreed on 80% of the demands, including changes to the dress code, bereavement leave, anti-discrimination policies and seniority in wage increases.
Union members began voting on the final proposal Tuesday. Some employees are ready to quit if they are not satisfied, the union wrote on Instagram on November 6.
“The contract offer commits Howard Brown to invest an additional $5 million for its workforce over two years,” Howard Brown CEO David Ernesto Munar said in a statement Tuesday. “We are growing our organization while making sure we meet our obligations.”
State Sen. Robert Peters, a Chicago Democrat, also spoke in support of the striking workers on Tuesday. Peters, also a Howard Brown patient, called for workers to receive the same level of health care as management staff.
“Basically, it’s about justice, safety and security,” Peters said.
A federally qualified health center that receives federal money to support low-income patients, Howard Brown Health specializes in treating LGBTQ patients and people living with HIV. Many employees are also patients.
Bob Reiter, president of the Chicago Federation of Labor, accused Howard Brown’s leadership of moving away from the organization’s mission of health care equity.
“Not only are (workers) looking for dignity in their wages, they are looking for dignity in their patients,” Reiter said.
O’Kelley, the spokesman for Howard Brown, said that union members “push us to live up to our roots in LGBTQ + liberation” at the bargaining table.
Throughout the negotiations, the contract demands were well communicated to both sides. Union members are demanding a $20 minimum wage with 2% annual raises, a 3% cost-of-living adjustment, 60 days notice for layoffs and 10-14 weeks of severance pay.
Howard Brown’s final offer includes a $19.23 minimum wage with a 1% annual raise, a 2.25% cost-of-living adjustment, 45 days’ notice for layoffs and one month’s severance pay .
Management rejected requests for guaranteed full-time work for 25% of Brown Elephant retail workers, two-hour weekly caps on mandatory overtime and union attendance at every HBH board meeting. Management also declined to discuss safeguards against layoffs.
Tiffany Foster-Mitchell, a lead medical assistant at Howard Brown’s South Side clinic on 47th Street and a member of the bargaining committee, said the health care system treats South Side clinics as “a stepchild or a foster child” in the larger system.
Bargaining committee member Claire Gilbertsen told the Tribune that some South Side clinic employees make $5,000 less per year than their North Side counterparts.
This week’s strike is Howard Brown Health’s second in a year. More than 400 workers walked off the job in January to protest a series of 64 layoffs.
After a series of successful labor complaints, 25 of the 61 fired union workers were reinstated earlier this year.