SK workers claim strike victory

November 6, 2009

Lee Sustar reports on the contract that settles a walkout at Chicago's SK Hand Tools.

CHICAGO--Workers at SK Hand Tools prevailed in a 10-week strike that forced their employer to restore health care coverage and pensions that were cancelled earlier this year, though the new contract contains a significant wage cut.

The 70 workers, members of Teamsters Local 743, make tools that are marketed under the SK brand, as well as Sears' Craftsman line. They voted by a 3-1 margin to accept the new contract, which includes wage cuts of 20 percent in the first year of a three-year agreement. Wages will rise 2 percent in the second year, and 2.5 percent in the final year.

Shop steward Emilio Lunar, a member of the local's organizing committee, said that workers feel the strike is a victory because it forced the owners to fully fund their pensions and restore health insurance that was cancelled May 1.

The company's extreme actions drew national attention as the SK Hand Tools battle became a symbol of the crisis in the employer-based health care system. An activist network sprang up around the strike, and the local labor movement promoted solidarity efforts as well.

Workers at SK Hand Tools are on the picket line to defend their health care benefits
Workers at SK Hand Tools hit the picket line to defend their health care benefits

"Our main concern was health care," Lunar said. "We were looking at three items--health care, pensions and wages." While workers with family health plans will have to pay somewhat more for coverage, most workers feel that they had won an important gain, he said. Pensions, too, were a critical issue. "We have a lot of people in their 50s, and who are near retirement," he said. On other issues, such as vacations, "everything gets back to status quo."

The wage cuts "were hard to swallow, but it was less important than health care," Lunar said. "We know the economy is bad shape, and the company is in a hard situation, so that's why we gave concessions on wages."

The wage cuts come after six years in which workers had no raises. But the contract is far better than what CEO Claude Fuger wanted--a deal that would have put workers almost at the minimum wage with no health care or pensions at all. After Fuger unilaterally cut off health care benefits May 1, Local 743 began preparing for an unfair labor practices strike that began August 25.

THE SK Hand Tools struggle broke out a time when far bigger unions have been unwilling or unable to stand up to employer demands for concessions. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers are down 95 percent over last year--and are at the lowest level since records were first kept in the 1940s.

The SK Hand Tools strike was too small to be included in those statistics. But it showed the potential for workers' struggles to rally support at a time when there is growing anger at the bankers and the wealthy, while workers face their worst prospects in decades.

The workers' picket line on Chicago's Southwest Side became a regular stopping point for members of other unions and activists of all kinds. Strikers were featured at a variety of labor and social movement events, from the Chicago Federation of Labor's Labor Day rally, to an immigrants' rights march the same day, and to a meeting with LGBT activist Cleve Jones to build the National Equality March in Washington, D.C. Activists from around the city attended a successful fundraiser at the Local 743 union hall.

"All the people who came to our line gave us a big boost in our spirits," Lunar said. "We are very thankful to people who donated food and money, or just their time. It really helped keep our spirits up. It was the most amazing experience. We didn't feel alone for a minute."

A major factor in the struggle was Local 743's New Leadership reform slate, headed by local President Rich Berg, who also served as chief negotiator with SK Hand Tools management. Since replacing a corrupt union leadership--including officials who are now in jail--Local 743's new administration has focused on rebuilding rank-and-file activism. The SK Hand Tools strike highlighted the stark differences between the reformers and the old guard.

"For years, I heard people say, 'The union doesn't do anything but take money from our pockets,'" Lunar said. "Today, people realize that it's important to have a strong union."

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