Workers forced to strike for health care

CHICAGO — Every month Norma Trinidad gets her medication refilled. In her last trip to the pharmacy she was told her health insurance had been terminated. Ordinarily Trinidad pays about $48 each refill. Yet now she was being charged $400. It was at that point she found out the company she’s worked at for the last 23 years had abruptly canceled her health insurance.

Trinidad and her union, Teamsters Local 743, voted unanimously to strike Aug. 24 against their company, SK Hand Tool Corporation, on the city’s southwest side.

The company, which also has a factory in McCook, Ill., makes metal tools. It has been in business for 88 years and employs more than 70 workers at both locations.

The workers have been picketing in front of the Chicago and McCook factories.

Trinidad said she and her co-workers were never notified about the company’s decision to unilaterally pull their health coverage until three weeks after it was cut off.

Many say Trinidad’s story, like millions across the country, is a perfect example of why the fight for health care reform is extremely critical for working families.

“President Obama is leading a national debate about how to protect hard-working Americans from callous employers like SK Hand Tools,” said Richard Berg, Teamsters Local 743 president, in a statement. The company, he said, “has left us no choice but to strike for our basic needs – health care.”

Trinidad, a machine setup operator, stamps products such as sockets, ratchets, screwdrivers, extensions, pliers and other mechanical tools.

“We built this company and we think what the owner is doing is totally unfair. We want our insurance back,” she said.

“The company just continues to kick us when we are already down,” she said on the picket line. “We are not striking because of money, we are here due to unfair labor practices.”

Trinidad said she and her union brothers and sisters are taking shifts outside the Chicago factory and plan to be there 24/7. And they don’t intend to back down any time soon.

“Rain or shine, we plan on having people out here for as long as it takes,” she said.

John Oprzedek has worked at SK Tools for 13 years. It’s been over a year since he had a major kidney transplant that now requires daily medication. Since the company stopped his health insurance Oprzedek said he has paid roughly $1,200 out of his pocket for his medicine.

“I am really scared for myself and my family,” he said. “Without health insurance I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”

Trinidad, Oprzedek and others are struggling to pay for their health care needs with no insurance. The wife of one worker is on a special pump for diabetes, said Trinidad. He’s worked at the company for 37 years, she notes.

Whether it’s paying for high blood pressure pills, a colonoscopy exam, or a $20,000 hernia operation, they are all left out in the cold, the workers say.

Gina Alvarez, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 743, said, “These are loyal members and some have been working here for more than 30 years. Since the new owner acquired the company he has not stopped asking for concessions and now he has violated the contract.”

In 2005, SK Hand Tool Corporation was bought out by its management and is now independently operated by two shareholders. In 2008, Claude Fuger, was elected president and CEO of the company.

Alvarez said the health and welfare of the workers has been a part of the union contract for more than 30 years. “When they took away their health insurance with no notice — no nothing, it was a complete shock to our members,” she said.

According to the one source, Fuger told the workers he could no longer afford both their health insurance and their pensions and threatened them with bankruptcy.

Meanwhile the National Labor Relations Board has issued an unfair labor practice complaint alleging the company has bargained illegally by canceling the workers’ health care coverage.

On top of stopping their health insurance the company is also asking for a pay reduction. The workers currently earn on average $14 per hour. The company is now asking for an additional $4 pay cut in the first six months, which would lower that average to just over the minimum wage. The workers’ wages have been frozen for the last six years.

Union steward David Biedrzycki said in a statement, “We are willing to make concessions to save the company but we can’t lose our health insurance.” He added, “They expect us to pay for our health coverage out-of-pocket when they’re also asking for a 20 percent pay cut — we can’t afford this.”

Trinidad notes the company hasn’t “given us a penny in over six years.”

Joe Truschke has worked at the Chicago factory for over two years. He’s worried about the well being of his family. “I have three kids that depend on my health insurance,” he said. “What’s going to happen if one of them gets sick?”

“Nobody wins in a strike, the workers lose and so does the company. We just hope we can find some middle ground,” he said.

Trinidad says she can’t sleep at night because she’s constantly thinking about how she is going to afford her health care expenses. Just last week Trinidad’s doctor told her she caught strep throat. She ended up paying for the doctor visit and her medication out of her pocket. The doctor gave her pills because she couldn’t afford the injection, she said.

Trinidad said she knows how important the fight for health care is, especially with the national debate taking place right now. She hopes people will understand why the strike she is leading is an important battle worth fighting.

“We’re not asking for a luxury,” she said. “We’re just asking for a basic necessity.”

Teamsters Local 743 represents 11,000 workers throughout the Chicago-land area working in manufacturing, health care, clerical, food service, warehouse and maintenance industries. The Teamsters local has represented the SK workers since 1968.

The company sells its merchandise through its website and through stores like Sears & Roebuck as well as on SK also makes some of the Sears Craftsman products.

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