It is difficult to hold a conversation on a cool Friday night outside the brick S‑K Hand Tools factory on Chicago’s South Side, because of the din of horns blaring constantly from the cars, semi-trucks and city buses that speed past on the busy street.
Nearly every vehicle is responding to the banners, held by a small crowd of machinists, saying “Honk for Health Care.” Even with the cacophony, their message gets through loud and clear.
Since May, these workers have been asked to pay their own medical bills: for diabetes, high blood pressure, children’s medical tests and even a $20,000 hernia surgery. That’s since S‑K Hand Tools, squeezed by the economic crisis, suddenly stopped paying their insurance premiums, without even notifying them for several weeks.
Last winter and spring, workers knew things were rough at the company that makes socket wrenches, ratchets, screwdrivers and about 3,500 other tools. Rolling partial lay-offs that started around the 2008 holidays saw many of the 80 or so skilled union machinists working only a week or two per month.
Contract negotiations that started in January were highly contentious, with management asking the Teamsters Local 743 leaders to accept $4 an hour pay cuts (from $14 an hour to $10) and other major concessions.
Even given the grim outlook, in May, the workers got a nasty surprise. When they went to the doctor or tried to fill prescriptions, they were told their health insurance, through Blue Cross Blue Shield, was no longer valid. Finally, after several weeks of this, they got letters from the company telling them their health insurance was cut off.
Workers say that in meetings since then, management has tried to blame the insurance company. But as noted in Unfair Labor Practice charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the union says the company is to blame for ceasing to pay their premiums. (Company CEO Claude Fuger, leaving the building on a Friday night, declined to talk for this story).
Juan Nieves, 57, has high blood pressure and cholesterol. As luck would have it, diabetes which Nieves thought he had beat years ago flared up in May.
The 10- to 12-hour days he used to work when business was good kept him in shape and his diabetes at bay, Nieve thinks, but the idle hours since business slowed took a toll on his health.
When Nieves tried to order his prescriptions in May, “They said, ‘Hey you don’t have any healthcare, your insurance card isn’t good anymore,’” he said. “I didn’t know what to do. My sugar was so high, but where could I go?”
His sister-in-law helped him find an affordable clinic on the city’s north side. But he knows many don’t have such luck. The union spent weeks trying to negotiate with the company to restore healthcare, including trying to institute a union-backed plan that would have been less expensive for the company.
But with no progress, on August 19 they voted to strike. After giving the company a “last chance” to make amends on August 24, the next day they hit the picket line. The workers are out 24 hours a day, not wanting to give management a chance to bring in replacement workers or remove equipment.
Workers at the smaller S‑K Hand Tools location farther west are also on strike. Machinist John McHale, 38, noted that he is one of the younger employees. The majority of workers in their 50s and 60s are experts at machines that aren’t widely used anymore.
“With the way the job market it is, no one’s going to hire them,” he said. The strikers have garnered significant support from other unions and residents in general. UPS, Fed-Ex and another union delivery company are refusing to make deliveries.
Retirees with almost 40 decades at the plant stop by for moral support. Bob Cartwright, who worked there for 35 years, notes that once upon a time it was a great place to work, and he “loved” coming in to the job. McHale says it is like a family, “everyone loves each other.”
The striking workers are not optimistic about the company agreeing to restore their healthcare, but they are determined to “stay out here as long as it takes,” in McHale’s words.
Julio Cobar, 51, is up for the challenge. He came to the U.S. fleeing the bloody civil war in his native Guatemala. “In my country if you were out on strike like this they would send someone to kill you,” he noted.
The S‑K workers are proud of their factory, which was originally founded in the early 1900s on Harrison Street to supply tools for World War I. Most of the workers just want to go back to their jobs – but with healthcare and their previous wages.
“We aren’t asking for anything we didn’t already have,” Nieves said.