Strike Snapshot: Workers United Local 1426

Lindsay Beyerstein

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If you’ve ever bought a shrink-wrapped Tyson chicken, you’re probably familiar with the work of Workers United Local 1426 of Terre Haute, Ind.

About 735 members of Local 1426 work for the Bemis Company, a major global supplier of flexible packaging materials for food and household goods.

Workers walked off the job on July 21 after the membership voted overwhelmingly to reject a contract. Their leaders say the company didn’t offer them enough security for their jobs or benefits.

Bill Kirby, vice-president of the local, said management’s plan to hire temporary workers at minimum wage and without benefits was unacceptable.

Kirby said that the union, which is affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, tried to negotiate with the company on the temp worker issue, but that those negotiations stalled because Bemis wouldn’t put specific proposals up for discussion.

Too much of this stuff was secretive,” Kirby said. They were ill-prepared to bargain.”

He said union negotiators pushed unsuccessfully for details about where these temps would come from and under what conditions they would be used. Management wouldn’t even say whether it was planning to hire temps directly or through an agency.

Our big fear is that the company will say: You’re laid-off and if you want to come back in, come back as temps,” Kirby said. So far, the company hasn’t threatened to do anything like that. Still, the workers are nervous because the company has been so vague about why they want temps in the first place.

Bemis spokeswoman Kristine Pavletich declined to answer any questions about the prospect of temporary workers.

Health insurance is another major sticking point for the striking workers. Bemis wanted to incorporate workers’ health insurance plan into the new contract. However, since Bemis controls the plan, it can rewrite the rules at any time.

Workers are concerned that the company might raise their premiums or co-pays, or change the eligibility rules during the life of the contract. The membership felt it was being asked to sign a blank check.

The union also objects to language in the contract that requires employees and their spouses to submit to a battery of tests known as a Health Risk Assessment (HRA). The screenings include everything from a family medical history to blood tests and weigh-ins. The proposed rule didn’t apply to workers’ children, but Kirby said that Bemis refused to write an exemption for kids into the contract.

Bemis maintains that the mandatory HRAs are for the workers’ benefit. But the union sees them as a bid to save money by identifying high-risk individuals and pressuring them to change their lifestyles and be healthier.

HRAs are to save money, [Bemis] told us that,” said Pat Cronin, Secretary of Workers United’s Chicago Midwest Regional Joint Board, the union’s lead negotiator. People do change their lifestyles.”

If the results of an HRA suggest that a worker is at high-risk, a life coach may be dispatched to help them lose weight or lower their blood pressure.

Currently, the results of an HRA do not affect whether a worker can get coverage, or how much that coverage costs. Working with a life coach is strictly voluntary and the company has given no indication that it intends to change that.

However, the union says that without an explicit guarantee in the contract, the company would have the option of making life coaching mandatory, or imposing other conditions. Members want to be sure that they won’t find themselves being ordered to drop pounds or lose insurance benefits.

According to Pavletich, no one is denied coverage based on the overall result of an HRA. But she didn’t rule out the possibility that this data might be used that way in the future.

Pavletich said that HRAs have already saved lives by catching workers’ health problems early.

We like our employees to be healthy. It’s almost like a service to them,” she said. Asked why the HRAs are mandatory, Pavletich said simply that this was the kind of coverage that Bemis has chosen for its entire workforce. She also stressed that the company does not scrutinize the HRA results of individuals.

The union fully supports voluntary HRAs, but Kirby and his colleagues find mandatory screenings intrusive and even degrading.

Bemis is self-insured, meaning that it sets aside its own money to pay claims instead of buying policies from an insurance company. Self-insurance can save money for the company. The downside is that the employer assumes the risk of insuring its employees, and thus pays all claims out of company coffers — which gives the employer an extra incentive to keep tabs on its employees’ health.

The union and management are scheduled to sit down with a federal mediator next week.

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Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times’ City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://​www​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.
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