Labor Notes: Chicago Teamsters Strike to Save Health Insurance

September 1, 2009: You take your kid to the dentist and go to pay the $20 co-pay.

“Oh, no,” says the receptionist. “You have to pay the whole bill—you don't have insurance.”

That’s how a member of Teamsters Local 743 in Chicago found out that his employer, SK Hand Tools, had unilaterally and without notice canceled health insurance for the workforce.

The 70 SK Teamsters struck August 25 over this unfair labor practice, and the National Labor Relations Board will hold a trial September 2.

“A lot of workers in Chicago feel like the SK workers are a voice that’s not being heard in the national health care debate,” said Local 743 President Richard Berg—“working people who are struggling to keep their health care.”

Spirits are good on the picket line, where most workers, who make tools such as wrenches for Sears, have never been on strike before. UPS and Yellow-Roadway drivers from Teamsters Local 705 are honoring their lines. Workers from the UAW engine plant down the road have brought food. A UNITE HERE delegation from the six-year-long Congress Hotel strike paid a visit.

“I hope people learn from this,” said striker David Biedrzycki, “that in one second you could lose your insurance. Don't take anything for granted.”

Biedrzycki, a welder-grinder-polisher with nearly 25 years in the plant, calls the workforce “a little bit of everything—a Heinz 57. At one time it used to be mostly Polish, then it turned a little Spanish, then it turned a little Asian. Believe it or not, we all work very well together.”

Maria Lesnicki, a tool packer for 33 years, said it was her first time on strike. “We were very angry, so we had to do this,” she said. “It was like a nightmare. The company said, ‘We meant to tell you guys but we didn’t have time.’ That made us more angry, when the union told us how the company thinks about us.”

Workers have been working under an expired contract since February. Management is demanding to cut their average $14-an-hour pay to just above the minimum wage, $8 in Illinois, as well as to ax their health benefits.

If the local wins at trial, SK will have to reimburse workers for medical expenses incurred since its unilateral withdrawal of insurance, and bargain with the union. The outstanding contract issues will still be on the table.

If the strike lasts, workers may receive benefits from the Teamsters International of about $140 a week. And the local will be seeking money and food from supporters to help sustain the strike.

For now, they’re asking Chicago area supporters to come to the picket lines in suburban McCook and on 47th Street. (See more on the local’s website here.)

“I’ve been having insurance all my working years over here,” Lesnicki said. “Having insurance all the time, I really don't know what it’s like not to. Now we find out.”

By Jane Slaughter

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