LANSING, Mich. - It tears Red Cross workers up to not be doing the jobs they love. That means collecting and transporting the blood that saves so many lives. But at some point, they have to protect their own lives and livelihoods too.
Teamster member Greg Golden, a 12-year mobile unit assistant worker for the American Red Cross, shared those thoughts on the picket line here Wednesday. It will soon be his tenth week in a strike that has spread from Cleveland to Toledo to Lansing. The Red Cross is attempting to deny its workers the ability to bargain for, of all things, health care, he said.
"We've known that for years but couldn't prove it," Golden remarked. "Now they've actually said it."
He was referring to the union discovery of American Red Cross "internal documents" that detailed the plan to deny the union's right to bargain collectively. Mike Parker, Teamsters Local 580 secretary treasurer, said the Red Cross wants to take away bargaining rights for health care, have the ability to raise health care premiums at any time without bargaining with the union, and implement a benefits package at or below what non-union employees receive, in order to discourage union membership. Since the strike began, management has only committed to three hours of talks per bargaining unit.
This explains why the Red Cross rejected union-offered health care concessions that would save the agency money by increasing employee premiums and out-of-pocket expenses.
Jennie Hemstreet, a 19-year mobile unit assistant for blood drives working in Lansing, put it clearly: "They have a union-avoidance plan."
Picketer Kelly Tracy of Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 459 said the health package pushed by the Red Cross contains such huge deductibles and co-pays that "out of pocket for a family of four would be like taking a 30 percent pay cut."
More than health care expenses is at stake. The strikers want the public to know that the Red Cross is planning cuts - like eliminating the presence of a registered nurse at all blood drives - that will undermine the safety of our blood supply.
The unions have set up food banks to help out the strikers. On Thursday evenings, the Teamsters organize dinners for strikers and their supporters. OPEIU members organize "theme dinners." Donations of cash and goods have come from other unions. Even some blood donors have shown solidarity by walking the picket line. Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero joined the picketers and brought pizzas.
Even with the help, it is not easy being on strike. Some of the picketers say they are eating more macaroni and cheese and Ramen noodles than they should, but even with those discomforts, and many more, the picketers remain strong.
Golden said he and others are in the fight of their lives. What they want us to know is that they're fighting for our lives too.
Photo: Red Cross workers on strike in Lansing, Mich. John Rummel/PW