May 30, 2023

Whiteside Co. health workers determined to win fair contract

When Northwestern Steel and Wire Company closed its Whiteside County steel mill in 1998, 10,000 union steelworkers suddenly lost their jobs—and their health insurance.

It was the Whiteside County Health Department that stepped up to make sure that their health needs would be met, regardless of their insurance status or ability to pay.

Twenty-five years later, AFSCME members in the health department are carrying on Whiteside County’s legacy of union activism.

The 90 employees of the public health department who formed their union with AFSCME in December 2021 have been at the bargaining table for more than a year. Stephanie Stichter, an RN and a member of the bargaining committee, said they formed their union because they want a bigger voice on the job and better communication between administrators and workers.

Stichter has been with the Health Department for more than 20 years, and in that time has helped it grow into a service that is truly there when people need it. Employees pride themselves on providing care whether or not a person has the ability to pay.

“I care about the department and our clinic,” Stichter said. “I watched it grow from being a single building to being this amazing entity that was grown and built for this community.”

But she sees the department’s new administration as wanting to run their public service more like a corporation. Longstanding programs have been cut. There’s more emphasis on revenue and less on providing the best care possible for the underserved people of their community. The administration has started sending patients’ bills to collections, a practice that would have been unheard of just a few years ago. Meanwhile, several administrators received raises between 30-40%.

Those misplaced priorities and management’s slow going at the table led the public health workers to mark their one-year bargaining anniversary with a large picket outside a meeting of the Whiteside County Board of Commissioners on April 18. The demonstration called attention to the administration’s glacial pace of bargaining, along with the unfair treatment and targeting that union organizers have faced from administration.

“The message we brought to the county board was that we need them to tell the administration to stop stalling and cancelling our negotiations,” Stichter said, referring to frequent instances when management has called off bargaining with little notice then refused to reschedule in a timely manner. “The union is here and it’s time to get a contract done.”

Through the pandemic, Whiteside County public health workers were there when their most vulnerable neighbors needed them the most. Many residents had nowhere else to turn for care when Covid-19 raged.

“As public health workers, we stepped up to protect our community through the pandemic, despite the risks to ourselves and our families,” Stichter said. “We deserve respect, fair treatment and fair pay—not these endless delays.”

Meanwhile, the public health workers aren’t losing sight of their mission. In fact, they’re more determined than ever.

“I stay determined because I still believe that the community needs our clinic and our services and still needs to have professionals who will see people who are underserved or don’t have insurance,” Stichter said. “We will always be there no matter what.”

Related News