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TruStage strike suspended, not ended

Report from the front

Ben Ratliffe reports on the recent developments in the TruStage (formerly CUNA Mutual Group) workers' strike in Madison, Wisconsin. Ben earlier reported back in April on the firing of OPEIU Local 39 Chief Steward Joe Evica in retaliation for union activity during an ongoing contract fight with CUNA Mutual Group.

Workers with CMG United, OPEIU Local 39 at TruStage (formerly CUNA Mutual Group) have been on strike for two weeks and the atmosphere on the picket line remains festive. Their activity is more united, yet less uniform and more comfortable than it was in the opening days, with many still walking the picket and others gathered in small groups along the route, getting to know each other and talking over developments in their struggle. Temperatures got up to the mid-80s and stayed there all week, prompting strikers to bring out mist machines, organize ice cream socials, and spend a bit more time in lawn chairs in the shade.

More community support arrived the second week in the form of water and food donations, a sing-a-long led by the Raging Grannies, and a caravan of a dozen cars decorated with window chalk driving laps around the TruStage campus honking. On Friday, a teacher brought her entire class of 7th graders who staged a mock tug-o-war, with two students on one end representing the bosses and the rest of the class on the other demonstrating, in more than one way, that we are many, they are few.

Earlier in the strike, construction workers with Findorff, the company contracted to continue the multi-million dollar construction projects on campus, showed up for work, talked to the striking workers, and promptly packed up their tools and left, refusing to cross the picket line. Shortly afterward, they came back with a flatbed trailer and retrieved a skid-steer so management couldn’t do any of the work themselves. This week, CMG United included a note on their daily “News To Know” dry-erase board by the sign-in station which read, “Findorff settled their contract last night, but won’t return until you have yours.”

Strikers were eager to talk about this and other experiences while on the picket.

One worker had stayed at work for the first three days of the strike, explaining how hard it was for him. He’d recently been through a divorce and had wracked up medical bills. As a newly single parent, he couldn’t fathom losing the pay. After a few days, however, he said, “I kept hearing that people I work closely with every day were out on the picket line and I had to go out and join them.” Halfway through the first week, he decided to join the strike.

At the Friday bargaining session, the bargaining committee was expanded to fifteen from the normal six. One member who’d joined that day described the experience as very empowering. He told the boss that TruStage had “lost its way” and had betrayed the original intentions behind the credit union movement. He was thinking a lot about strategies he and his co-workers could use to maintain leverage once they decide to end the strike.

Another striker, who also wished to remain anonymous, is on the verge of retirement and is striking for “all these new people who deserve the kind of benefits I’ve enjoyed.” Her department has shrunk from forty to four employees due to outsourcing. She recalled being grateful in 2016 when management gave them sixteen months’ notice of the move to outsource her services to another company. Due to a technical conflict, hers and three other jobs in the department could not be taken by the new entity. Their positions at CUNA remained but were under constant threat of being lost. “I’m so sick of these meetings where management tells us how much they appreciate us. If you appreciate us then prove it!”

As for people’s feelings about their strike, all these members reported great satisfaction with the regularity of communication that’s been maintained between the picket line and the bargaining committee and felt a great deal of pride in the solidarity they’d built and the support they’ve received from the community.

Their ULP strike has forced management back to the table. After four months of management refusing to meet, bargaining resumed on May 24. At that first session, however, it quickly became apparent management was attempting to string them along. One bargaining committee member explained, “The Exec Board basically corrected some spelling in their original proposal. It was just another slap in the face.”

At that point, CMG United voted, again by over 90 percent, to extend the strike indefinitely.

The two sides met twice more the following week and finally started making progress. The final was a five-hour session on Friday, June 2, after which CMG United held a membership meeting at 7:00 p.m. to determine the next steps.

On Monday, CMG United announced their union had voted to suspend the strike but that 92 percent of the members voted to resume the strike should management stall again.

In the announcement, Will Roberts of the Union’s Contract Action Team, an extension of the Bargaining Committee made up of more than forty members, said, “This isn’t the same union that we were when we first voted to authorize this ULP strike back in April. We are far more united and determined. We’ve taken a stand against our employer’s designs to undercut and undermine our livelihoods and well-being, and that takes a lot of courage.”

Featured Image Credit: Laura Markwardt; modified by Tempest.

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Ben Ratliffe View All

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.