Justice for Joe Evica!

You can support Joe and his family by donating to the GoFundMe page organized by members of the union.

Workers at CUNA Mutual Group (CMG) with Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 39 in Madison, WI have been deadlocked with management in contract negotiations for months. Despite clear justifications for their demands and increasing levels of militancy and public support, CMG management has utilized a variety of tactics to obstruct bargaining and break their union. Last week, the company fired Chief Steward Joe Evica in retaliation for his and his coworkers’ efforts to hold CMG accountable to its own mission and ensure just compensation and stable employment.

CUNA Mutual Group is an insurance company that sells a variety of insurance and investment products to other credit unions worldwide. The company established its headquarters in Madison in 1935. Today it operates out of offices in Washington D.C., Iowa, Kansas, and Texas. It runs international operations out of the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Trinidad and Tobago. In addition to services provided to credit unions, CMG sells auto, life, and other types of insurance to individuals and companies under its TruStage brand.

The company prides itself on an orientation to social justice and philanthropy, and credit unions are often perceived as progressive alternatives to traditional banks. CMG’s “good cop” reputation is being challenged now as workers expose its treatment of the people who make the company run.

Negotiations began in February 2022. After reporting “exceptional growth” in 2021 with a year-end net income of $622 million, CMG management tried to cut their employees’ health insurance plan, freeze pensions for new hires, and continue outsourcing without offering wage increases nearly commensurate with inflation. Over the last twenty years, CMG has outsourced 1,200 union jobs, reducing its Madison-based workforce from over 1,600 to about 450 employees and contracting with non-union firms to avoid paying respectable wages and benefits. Meanwhile, managers have awarded themselves 22 percent bonuses, recently spent $1.3 billion acquiring another company, and spent millions more on new construction at the Madison office.

At the beginning of 2023, CMG management threw up significant obstacles to bargaining that have stalled what little progress was being made. Many CMG employees, including most of the union’s bargaining team, work remotely and negotiations had been held virtually. In a blatant effort to exhaust union leaders, CMG management began requiring the union bargaining team to meet in person and off the clock. This meant a loss in pay if they chose to meet during work hours or, for those working remotely from outside Madison, a drive into the city at the end of the day.

Union leaders have filed unfair labor practice lawsuits with the National Labor Relations Board, citing these and other blatant violations of the company’s legal obligation to bargain in good faith. The workers have also engaged in several spirited informational pickets, joined by other union workers and community allies. Their union has found support among members of the County and City governments, which passed resolutions supporting good-faith bargaining between the parties. The workers have also sent letters to more than seven thousand credit union leaders with whom CMG does business. Finally, in what veteran union activist and journalist Frank Emspak calls a “possible game-changer”, the union filed charges with NLRB under new “joint employer” rules, claiming the nature of the supervisory relationship between CMG and non-union contractors should obligate the company to bargain over their wages and working conditions as well.

Instead of listening to its employees and the Madison community, CMG has doubled down and begun targeted retaliation. On March 14, Chief Steward Joe Evica was placed on two weeks paid leave, pending the investigation of management’s claim that he illegally shared company information. OPEIU started a petition charging that the action taken against Joe was clear retaliation for “his role as a leader on the bargaining committee and in the union, and his effectiveness at organizing a collective response to management’s bad faith bargaining tactics.”

To run the investigation, CMG paid a notorious union-busting firm, Ogletree Deakins, and in short order, Joe was fired. His union next created a GoFundMe page that’s already raised over $9,000 to help Joe and assist with future organizing. The union intends to fight Joe’s termination on legal grounds and workers are considering a legally-protected unfair labor practice strike.

Joe Evica explained the situation. When asked why CMG was playing so dirty when the company was doing so well, he replied,

CUNA Mutual Group is resisting our union’s reasonable proposals for fair wages and benefits for the same reason all companies do: they would prefer to run their company like a dictatorship where workers have no control over our working conditions. This time around though, they’ve met serious resistance in the form of hundreds of union members standing together for what we know is fair.

Eight months ago, while on the picket line, union steward Bryan Barber said CMG was dragging negotiations out in order to demoralize workers, but that this was having the opposite effect, as workers’ militancy and public support grew. Since then, and in the face of the bosses’ attacks, solidarity in the union has remained strong, and workers plan to continue their fight.

This piece first appeared at Tempest.

Ben Ratliffe is a member of the Tempest Collective in Madison, WI and co-chair of the People’s Green New Deal. He works full time as a labor organizer for AFSCME Council 32 and runs a small tree pruning business on the side.