Before and during this pandemic, I’ve seen how much University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) management depends on us. Despite the need for our labor to continue functioning, they show no respect for our livelihoods.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. My union brothers and sisters and I have had to fight for personal protective equipment (PPE) like N95 masks, which are still not readily accessible to workers. We had to fight for much needed hazard pay, which was eventually removed by management. Despite the struggles we continue to face we are ready to come together and take our battle with management to the next level.

We are about 4,000 clerical, professional, technical and service and maintenance workers who work at the main campus in Chicago, the University of Illinois Hospital and Health and Sciences System at the Peoria, Rockford, and Champaign facilities, and UIC Specialized Care for Children. We have been working without a contract for about a year because UIC management has failed to bargain in good faith. We are in the middle of a strike vote and I’m voting yes to strike for fair pay, safe working conditions, adequate staffing levels, and respect for the work we do.

As a building service worker who has kept the hospital clean and sanitized throughout the pandemic, I know how crucial my team is to the university. Nevertheless, I’ve seen management disrespect people who show up and do their jobs every day. Management doesn’t know how to talk to its employees. That’s why I became a union steward, because I’ve seen the workplace injustices firsthand and I want to help lead the efforts to fight for our dignity. I am standing with my fellow workers to ensure our demands are addressed. This is not just a fight for better pay, better working conditions, and to have UIC bargain with us in good faith. It is a fight for our families, communities, and our very livelihoods.

The cost of living has increased dramatically over the years, which has been magnified by the pandemic, and yet UIC’s pay doesn’t reflect the dangerous reality we’re in. All of us working throughout the university’s system keep it going when no one else can. We keep staff, patients, and others safe. We stepped up and have done what the world has asked us to do during the crisis. Now, we want management to follow the same principles.

Chicago’s minimum wage is $15 an hour, but through a loophole, UIC is paying people $10-12 an hour. It’s important that building service workers make more than $15 an hour not just to ensure that we are paid fairly for the work that we do, but so that we can have a better way of life. It’s a disgrace that UIC has been exempt from the city-wide minimum wage laws. I’m tired of struggling paycheck to paycheck.

We deserve more. Throughout all of this, UIC President Timothy Killeen received a 40 percent raise. This is not what fairness resembles; it is what disrespect looks like.

What we are asking for is just. We’ve all seen how hard this pandemic has hit our black and brown communities, which make up an overwhelming majority of building service workers like me. The time is now for UIC to show us that it’s willing to make a meaningful change.

We are responding to the biggest crisis our country has seen in years. Public employees, like us, are on the frontlines working together to defeat this historic and deadly pandemic. UIC workers are speaking with one voice to ensure we are the best able to meet the evolving needs of our families while continuing to provide the essential services for UIC to keep running.

Monica Jones, building service worker at UIC and union steward at SEIU Local 73.