April 23, 2024 1:34 am
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CUNA Mutual Workers Go on Strike As Contract Negotiations Stall

Credit: iStock

by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner

Nearly 500 workers employed by CUNA Mutual Group struck at midnight Thursday and began walking a picket line at 7 a.m. Friday in front of the Madison financial services firm’s office on the city’s west side.

The walkout was publicly announced on Monday, three weeks after the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 39 rallied and announced that members had authorized a strike if they didn’t make sufficient progress in contract negotiations that began more than a year ago. 

The union represents approximately 450 employees in professional, technical and clerical positions at CUNA Mutual. The business provides financial services and products to credit unions across the country.

The walkout is the largest in recent memory by white-collar workers in Wisconsin and the first-ever strike at CUNA Mutual, where OPEIU has represented employees since 1945. 

“No one ever anticipates having to go on strike,” Kathryn Bartlett-Mulvihill, Local 39 president and a former CUNA Mutual employee, said Friday morning. “But look, the issues are serious. The issues around job security, we have been trying to negotiate changes around that for over 20 years.”

The union is characterizing the walkout as an unfair labor practice strike — a significant distinction because, if upheld by the National Labor Relations Board, it would prevent the company from permanently replacing strikers.

Members authorized a five-day strike initially, Bartlett-Mulvihill said. “Could it go longer?” she added. “Absolutely. If we see no movement at the table from the employer, you know, those are options that the members are looking at.”

The walkout comes as CUNA Mutual is in the midst of rebranding its business under the name TruStage, reflecting an expansion beyond its original customer base of credit unions. 

Bartlett-Mulvihill and Joe Evica, the union’s chief steward at CUNA Mutual, told reporters at a picket-line news conference that the principal issues remained job security, wages, pension benefits, health care and a pay equity review for union employees, including stronger efforts to expand the diversity of the workforce. The union has also sought to maintain remote work policies that began during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The union has criticized company management for its handling of contract negotiations, which began in February 2022. 

“TruStage has made record profits over the last several years. But we’ve been without a contract for more than 400 days,” Evica said. “We’ve also been without a pay raise for more than two years.”

In a statement issued Thursday, CUNA Mutual management said the company’s most recent proposal includes “a double-digit percentage immediate pay increase” as well as bonus improvements. 

Bartlett-Mulvihill told the Wisconsin Examiner on Friday that the proposed wage hike amounted to about 10%, which would not keep up with the last two years of inflation. The offer also did not include a provision for retroactive pay “for all the wages that they have lost.”

The CUNA Mutual statement said the company’s proposal  “maintains the current health benefits” while adding a health savings account option; keeps remote work policies for full-time employees and “maintains retirement benefits for current employees” along with a 401(k) plan and 5% employer match.

Bartlett-Mulvihill said that the current health plan is only available to Madison-area employees, while those outside the region would be required to take a high-deductible alternative, and that the company hasn’t been willing to offset the high deductibles.

She said the company’s offer to retain the remote work policy has lacked what the union has been seeking — a guarantee that remote workers wouldn’t be required to return in person sometime in the future. For workers who are far from Madison or out of state, “if your [remote] status is revoked, your job is revoked — you would lose your job.”

She said there has been some movement on remote work, however, “so I’m hopeful that we’re very close, at least on that one very particular issue.”

While maintaining the defined-benefit pension plan for existing workers, however, Bartlett-Mulvihill said the current management proposal would not extend that to new hires, who would only be eligible for a 401(k) plan. “All unions reject two tier systems, as well we should — that is a way to divide and break a union,” she said.

Union leaders say that CUNA Mutual has been unwilling to address their core job security demand — addressing what the union has calculated to be a loss of 1,200 jobs over the last two decades to outsourcing and as many as 1,700 positions that have been filled by contractors who don’t have union representation or job security.

On Friday, the union employees planted 1,200 tiny flags on the grass median strip dividing the street in front of the CUNA Mutual campus to represent the outsourced workers.

The union has also accused management of slow-walking contract talks over the last year and a half. While CUNA Mutual engaged a federal mediator, Bartlett-Mulvihill said the company has not involved the mediator in the negotiating process.

When the union made a comprehensive offer at one recent session, she said, the company response after several days was to reject it entirely and then “come back with a few counter-proposals” rather than addressing the items one by one.  

The union has five pending NLRB cases charging the company with unfair labor practices. Those include a series of charges in connection with the firing of Evica, the chief steward, who was accused of improperly sharing company information. Other charges accuse the company of negotiating in bad faith and of surface bargaining. 

In company statements, CUNA Mutual has asserted it has bargained in good faith and that it expects the contract to be resolved.

In March, the Dane County Board and the Madison city council both passed resolutions urging CUNA Mutual to resume bargaining after there had been no talks in two months. 

The union and its lawyer have criticized CUNA Mutual for retaining two law firms with a reputation for aggressive anti-union strategies.

Friday’s picket line surrounded the company’s perimeter, including an empty building on the property that is slated for demolition. Members of at least one union working on the demolition project walked off the job in solidarity with the striking CUNA Mutual employees, according to Jac Weitzel of the Building Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin.

Addressing the press as well as the strikers, Evica said the walkout had the potential to reach far beyond just one employer. 

“What happens to us at CUNA Mutual affects every single worker in Madison and beyond,” Evica said. “People are looking to us. They will organize themselves. Madison will change as a city, because workers are ready to organize and fight back.”

This story was written by Erik Gunn, Deputy Editor at the Wisconsin Examiner, where this story first appeared.

Wisconsin Examiner is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Wisconsin Examiner maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Ruth Conniff for questions: info@wisconsinexaminer.com. Follow Wisconsin Examiner on Facebook and Twitter.

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