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An unfair labor practices strike at Chicago-based SK Hand Tools has highlighted the widespread attack on health care benefits and wages as employers try to take advantage of the recession.
About 75 workers at SK walked out August 25, about three months after the company–which makes the popular Craftsman brand tools for Sears–cut off their Blue Cross/Blue Shield health coverage.
"I’ve worked here 23 years, and I’ve always had that plan," said striker Norma Trinidad. "Unilaterally, without any notice, they cut off our health insurance. What he did was 100 percent wrong."
Many workers found out about the cutoff only when they sought medical care. "People walked into Walgreens to get their prescriptions filled and were told that they owe $300 or $400, when ordinarily it was $40 or $50," Trinidad said.
Driving this union-busting agenda are Claude Fuger, president and CEO of SK Hand Tools, and Cliff Rusnak, the company’s vice president and board chairman. The two men took over the 88-year-old company in 2005, purchasing it from Facom, the French multinational. Since then, they’ve been out to cut labor costs–and now they seem intent on breaking the union for good.
The workers’ union, International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 743, has sought to overturn the health care cutoff by appealing to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to rule the cutoff an unfair labor practice. The board is scheduled to hold a hearing on the matter September 2. But with no health care, workers concluded that they had no alternative but to walk out now.
"We have been working without a contract since February 28, and working without health insurance for the last four months," said striker Emilio Lunar, a shop steward. "Our pension is going to be in default at the end of this month. So it’s a stressful situation for every worker here. They don’t know the next thing [the owner] is going be cutting."
Already, health care costs have put a number of workers deeply in debt. Wages range from $11 to $19 an hour, but most people make around $12 or $14. So even routine medical expenses for prescription drugs can quickly add up.
"We have one guy whose wife has diabetes, and who needs a special pump," Trinidad said. "He had to go online, hunting, trying to find temporary health insurance. We have people with high blood pressure and other medical conditions also."
One worker, John Oprzedek, had a kidney transplant a year ago. "The medication is very expensive each month–almost $4,000," he said. "I must go to the doctor every month to check my blood and urine. I’ve been working here 13 years, and we always have had insurance."
Another worker, Dejan Gavatsky, finds himself $20,000 in debt–so far–for emergency hernia surgery that he underwent six weeks ago. Gavatsky, who emigrated to the U.S. from Macedonia about four years ago, thought he had found a good job at SK, where he made about $30,000 to $35,000 per year at first. But this year, he’s been on layoffs for the equivalent of nearly three months. Before the strike, he was on track to make only about $15,000, he said.
"Every day, there are more bills coming in, and I want to pay them to keep my credit rating," he said. His household has income from his wife, who works as a housekeeper, but it’s not nearly enough to make a dent in the medical bill.
Gavatsky and his wife don’t have children. But other workers relied on their insurance through SK to cover their kids. One of them, Terry Spiwak, a 23-year veteran worker, finds himself of the hook for $13,000 to cover the cost of a new pacemaker for his 15-year-old son.
The workers joked that owner Fuger, originally from France, won’t have those problems. "If he gets sick, he can just go to the doctor in France for free," Trinidad said.
In addition to the cutoff of their health insurance, the workers are also facing demands for a temporary $4 per hour wage cut and a permanent 20 percent wage cut to get the company through the recession, workers on the picket line said. Management had earlier sought to reopen the contract to obtain a 50 percent wage cut, but workers refused.
"It seems like he [Claude Fuger] wants us to work for minimum wage with no benefits," Emilio Lunar said. But that’s another battle: The current walkout is limited to an unfair labor practice–cancellation of health care.
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Given the suffering that workers have already endured and the harshness of management’s demands, one might expect the SK Hand Tools picket lines to be grim.
Not so. At the factory on Chicago’s Southwest Side, a dozen or so workers keep up spirited pickets along 47th Street, where trucks and cars speeding past routinely sound their horns. A local pizza restaurant fed picketers, and visitors from other unions drop by with coffee and snacks.
In the loading docks in back, a picketer reports that unionized truck drivers from UPS and other companies are refusing to cross picket lines. The picture at the SK warehouse in nearby McCook, a Chicago suburb, is similar. "We’ve had a lot of solidarity–a lot," said Emilio Lunar.
It’s easy to see why people identify with the SK Hand Tools workers. They’re a microcosm of working-class Chicago. "We’ve got everybody," Norma Trinidad said. "Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Polish, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Italian, whites, African American, Arabs and more." Many have worked in the plant for at least a decade.
Another factor in the fighting spirit in this strike is the dramatic change in the workers’ union, the 13,000-member Teamsters Local 743. After a long and difficult battle against a corrupt union leadership–several members of which are now in prison– a reform slate led by Richard Berg took over last year.
Berg, now the local’s president, has encouraged Local 743 members to make connections with other labor unions and community struggles. Several workers from SK Hand Tools, including shop steward Lunar, went to the rallies in support of the Republic Windows & Doors occupation last December.
Now SK Hand Tools workers find themselves on labor’s front lines. Like Republic Windows, the company directly involved is relatively small, but major corporate power looms behind.
In the case of Republic Windows, it was Bank of America that became the target for its refusal to fund severance pay for workers. At SK Hand Tools, workers plan to draw attention to the company’s main customer, Sears, with an action at its corporate headquarters in Hoffman Estates outside Chicago.
And the issue involved–defending health care benefits–is a crucial question for tens of millions of workers. As the New York Times noted earlier this year, "Surveys suggest that rising premiums have prompted more than half of small businesses to reduce benefits, raise deductibles or require workers to shoulder a larger share of an ever more expensive pie."
It’s going to be a tough fight. To put pressure on Sears and the SK Hand Tools management, the strikers urgently need our support.
LEE SUSTAR is the labor editor of Socialist Worker, where this article originally appeared.