Pension workers strike for their pensions

Steve Leigh reports from Seattle on a strike by workers who administer heath and retirement benefits for members of many area unions.

Striking pension workers and their allies on the picket line in Seattle (OPEIU Local 8 | Facebook)Striking pension workers and their allies on the picket line in Seattle (OPEIU Local 8 | Facebook)

WORKERS WHO process pension and health care claims for several joint union-company trust funds in the Seattle area find themselves in a fight for their own pension and health care.

On August 23, 90 members of Office and Professional Workers Local 8 went on strike against Welfare and Pension Administrative Services Inc. (WPAS) in the Seattle suburb of Mercer. The main issues include seniority, 401(k) plans, health insurance and maintaining automated union dues checkoff.

WPAS was founded as a nonprofit subsidiary of the Washington State Labor Council in 1953, but in 1987, it was sold off and became a privately held corporation. "I have always...been proud to work for a company that shared my pro-labor values," says striking mailroom employee Randy Henson, but "things have changed dramatically in the past three years...since the retirement of...the last of our original owners."

In the latest round of bargaining, the company insisted on dropping union dues checkoff and seniority rights on layoffs, and refuses to cap potential monthly health care premiums. The union has already agreed to a second-tier health plan.

Workers want to maintain a monthly premium of no more than $150. The company insists on the right to allow fund trustees to raise the premium with no limit over five years, which could devastate the wage increase of 12.5 percent over vie years that has already been agreed to by both sides. Other outstanding issues include workloads and management's top down approach.

What you can do

Help support striking workers at Welfare and Pension Administrative Services Inc. in Washington state by donating here.

According to the strikers, the company is not hurting financially. In fact, business for the company has continued to increase. Henson says that in the mail room, "since March 2008, two of our union members [out of 12] have departed and not been replaced. At the same time, our company has added 16 new trust funds to our workload, including three in the last four months. Only under rare circumstances will they grant us overtime...so we are frequently unable to meet production dates."

The issue is greed and control. As one striker put it, "They are trying to bust the union." This is an extreme example of hypocrisy for a company that survives by administering union health and pension funds. Some 60 to 70 percent of the company's business comes from construction unions.

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SO FAR, the strike is going very well. Spirits are high on the picket line. "The bonding is amazing," says Henson. He notes that many of the strikers have worked together for 20 or 30 years. More than 70 of the 90 bargaining-unit members are actively picketing.

Though the company has brought in temporary scabs, much of the work is not getting done because the work of highly trained and experienced workers cannot be quickly learned by replacements. Since this is an Unfair Labor Practice strike, it is illegal to hire permanent replacements.

The workers are receiving significant solidarity from other unions and community groups. At a rally on September 14, supporters from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, International Association of Machinists, Service Employees International Union, United Steel Workers, Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity and Society of Professional Engineers in Aerospace were present, as well as representatives of the King County Labor Council. Politicians also sent greetings.

As Kamaria Hightower of the King County Labor Council put it, "This is an example of corporate greed run amuck. We won't stand for it! Stay strong--this is a fight we must win. You're standing up for all of us. You are not alone!"

Strikers expect the pressure on the company to increase. The strike took place just at the end of the busiest period. A new peak will come now during the days through to September 25. Already, the company is receiving more complaints about poor service, even though management says that all is well.

Though morale is high, strike funds are limited. Anyone who would like to contribute should donate here. Solidarity is the way to win.