10/16/07

Teamsters strike enters 2nd year

Precariously arranged at the edge of Steuben Street, the ramshackle hut of plywood boards covered in tattered plastic creaks and flutters in the crisp autumn air.

The shack is a marvel of ingenuity, given that the striking Standard Ready Mix workers started out with a bare patch of city right of way on the curb. Through much of last winter, they huddled together around a burn barrel with only their coats to protect them from the elements. The electrical connections they've managed to rig are crude, but the men still count their blessings, among them being able to watch "Judge Joe Brown" and heat food in a microwave oven.

Their bathroom is a portable outhouse loaded onto a small trailer.

On any given day, you might find four men playing Euchre in the back of the shack for pennies or a small crowd gathered in front of the TV’s fuzzy picture. On other days, there could be just one man inside, sucking on a cigarette butt as he relaxes in a lawn chair.

Hundreds of days have passed during the yearlong strike at Standard Ready Mix in Sioux City and Ludey's Ready Mix in Vermillion, S.D. During that time, 13 of the 50 workers who struck at Standard have crossed the strike line to return to work, according to company president Mark Jensen. Five of the eight who walked out at Ludey's are back at work, Jensen said.

A few have found other full-time jobs, including with Standard Ready Mix’s competitor, Siouxland Concrete in South Sioux City. Others have found part-time work in random bars or stores, and by late summer, two were driving buses for the Sioux City Transit System. Some don’t have a job at all.

Jensen terminated four striking workers for what he termed serious "misconduct."

Now, a year since the strike started on Oct. 16, 2006, striking workers still show up in shifts of one, two, three, four -- whenever they want, for the most part -- to continue their quest for a better contract, more comprehensive health-care coverage, higher pay. At least, that’s what they hope for. But as former five-year Standard Ready Mix employee Greg Newell put it, hope is running thin.

"We don't have a clue as to who's telling us the truth," Newell said of negotiations between General Drivers and Helpers Union Local 554, an affiliate of International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and the decades-old concrete mixing and delivery company. "Nobody seems to know anything."

The two parties haven’t met since late last year to talk about a new contract. Lawyers for both sides said meetings may have stalled due to multimillion-dollar lawsuits the company and the union filed against each other -- one regarding the union’s alleged illegal strike and one alleging Standard Ready Mix improperly froze the company pension plan.

However, a document filed by the union Sept. 27 in federal court in Nebraska says negotiations reopened Sept. 19.

Jensen maintains they never closed. "Negotiations have been ongoing," he said last week. "We have not been able to get them to the table."

Jensen is scheduled to give a deposition today.

Negotiation breakdown?

Article 7 of the Teamsters' most recent contract with Standard Ready Mix, which expired Oct. 15, 2006, says the contract remains in effect during negotiations unless the talks reach impasse. If it gets to that point, the contract says, before either party takes legal or economic recourse, it must notify the other party in writing seven days in advance.

Whether that article was still in effect Oct. 16, 2006, when the workers went on strike, is the crux of a federal lawsuit Standard Ready Mix filed in January against Local 554. Jensen and his lawyer, labor specialist Kelly Berens of Omaha, claim the union breached the contract’s no-strike provision and didn’t provide the required seven days' notice before the strike began. Union officials said in court documents that the company didn't present any contract proposals in the two days after union members voted down its "last, best and final offer" on Oct. 13, 2006, and that that created an impasse -- a deadlock between two parties after good-faith negotiation and mediation has failed. If there was impasse, they claim, the period of negotiations was over and the contract was expired, meaning union workers could strike without notice.

Court documents filed by the union say negotiations had been going on for nine days before the company presented a contract proposal on which union members could vote; when a contract was provided as a final offer, it was two days before the old contract expired.

"We weren't saying that was our final offer, " Jensen said. "It was our offer at the time. ... We are not at impasse. Nobody has written any letters" saying they are done negotiating.

"We withdrew our offer and said we would re-evaluate it and see what changes we could make to bring about a resolution," said Berens. "We've been in contact with the union and their lawyers, we have requested meetings ... they could have signed a one-year extension of the contract. There were all kinds of alternatives available."

Jensen said the union didn't come to the bargaining table until about two weeks before the contract was due to run out.

Local 554 business manager Danny Avelyn of Kansas City and officials with the local's headquarters in Omaha have declined to comment on any issues related to the strike beyond what is provided in public court documentation. Local 554 lawyer Mike Weinberg of Omaha also has declined to speak on the record.

The company is asking for about $1 million in compensation for "lost profits and market share, damage to its business reputation, expenses required to maintain business operations during the unlawful strike, overall valuation of the company, wasted overhead expenses and expenses incurred to recruit and train new employees," according to court documents.

"The union's liability is great," Berens said. "The business is in tremendous economic hardship."

Sales volume statistics show the company was losing $375,000 to $900,000 a month in sales in the first five months of the strike, and Jensen said those losses have continued.

"We had to turn down business because we couldn't deliver the product without workers. We also lost some contracts," Jensen said. "Some people don't feel comfortable crossing a picket line."

Pension problems

Also at the heart of the battle between Local 554 and Standard Ready Mix is the company's pension plan, which was frozen June 1, 2002. All benefits accrued up to that date have been retained by retirees and current company employees and have continued to be paid out, Jensen said, and a 401(k) retirement plan is available. But union officials claim in a federal lawsuit filed in February that neither workers nor the union received notice of the pension freeze and that the workers are in danger of losing their benefits -- even those who worked for them for 25 or 30 years.

In the lawsuit, the union asks the court to decide whether the plan freeze was done legally under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, which sets standards for pension and health plans in private industry to provide protection for workers. If it was not, the suit seeks thousands of dollars of pension benefits owed from 2002 to date.

Berens said the union has known about the pension freeze since 2002 and that it also consented to the pension being discontinued as a mandatory bargaining issue when the pension was taken out of the Standard Ready Mix contract with the union a few years ago.

"If this was a big deal, why didn't the union have written demands for language before December 2006?" Berens asked.

Letters and notices about the pension change that Jensen said he sent to workers and union officials were not provided to the Journal and haven't been included in court documents, although sworn affidavits to their existence have been. Local 554 also has not provided additional documentation to the Journal or filed them in court.

Local 554 is also seeking the distribution of all pension funds owed because of a modification made to the plan the day Jensen took ownership of Standard Ready Mix.

"The modification of plan they are talking about is when the company's name was changed on the documents to reflect new ownership. That's not a change to the plan itself," Berens said. "Basically, they filed this pension lawsuit because the company sued them. It's pure nonsense."

The union has filed several charges against Standard Ready Mix with the National Labor Relations Board over the past months, but the only one it is still pursuing is about the pension issue. NLRB Des Moines Resident Officer David Garza said the organization has deferred its investigation to the courts and is not pursuing action against the company at this time.

Lawyers for the union and the company have said eligible employees are currently receiving pension payments. But there has been a question about whether the company needs to provide a guarantee in writing that the accrued pension funds will still be doled out if someone else takes over the company. Union officials said there should be, but Berens disagreed.

"The pension money is guaranteed by ERISA. The company is held responsible through it," he said.

'Everyone's a victim'

Before he came to the table last October, Jensen said he didn't have any experience with contract negotiations. He was executive vice president of Standard Ready Mix before buying the enterprise in 2005 and didn't have a hand in union contracts, he said.

"From what I knew of before, there was local union representation," Jensen said. "I never noticed any problems until all the managers for our union were from out of town (Omaha). They don't have any vested interest in the community."

Jensen and strikers alike have said union leaders aren't coming up to Sioux City anymore to visit with them and send the strike checks with others in the organization.

"To me, what they've done is basically abandoned my guys," Jensen said. "It's frustrating. They don't want to talk to me, they don't want to negotiate."

Jensen said last summer that if a contract agreement is eventually reached, he would be more than willing to hire his workers back, but they would have to be taken back in order of seniority to fill spots not already taken by replacements.

"They're basically a good bunch of guys. They know their job," he said.

But last week, he said the striking workers aren't likely to find their jobs waiting for them if the strike ends. Ludey, in Vermillion, is at full employment with seven workers, and Standard Ready Mix in Sioux City is close to full staffing as the season winds down. There is no guarantee there will be openings even in the spring, Jensen said. "Future employment here is slim."

Besides the pressure the strike has put on Standard Ready Mix, it has also placed a burden on workers and their families. Striker Shannon Nelson, who got a job driving a city bus, said it probably even helped a few of his co-workers' relationships break apart in the past year.

"It's been stressful on everybody," he said. "We're like a big family."

Barring an agreement, all either side can do is wait.

The case Standard Ready Mix brought against Local 554 doesn't go to trial until at least March, and the pension suit not until next September.

"Everyone's a victim in this," Berens said.

(siouxcityjournal.com)

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