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Published: Saturday, 7/20/2002

Area's labor harmony gets a jolt from strikes and union demands

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Brian Edgington responds to a truck honking its horn as he and other employees of Toledo Blank picket outside the plant. Brian Edgington responds to a truck honking its horn as he and other employees of Toledo Blank picket outside the plant.
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Nearly a month after Mike Phillips traded the keys to his beer delivery truck for a picket sign, he and 25 co-workers remain on strike at the Toledo area's Miller Brewing Co. wholesaler.

“Six weeks is the longest strike we've ever had, but I wouldn't be surprised if this one went past that,” Mr. Philips speculated last week under a blazing hot sun outside Metropolitan Distributing Co., 911 North Summit St.

Picket signs are a sign of the times. A lackluster economy and soaring health-insurance costs have combined this summer to disrupt the relationship between area companies and their employee unions that was mostly harmonious throughout the 1990s.

Workers remain on strike at at least three northwest Ohio firms and the ink is barely dry on settlements ending four other walkouts.

Plus, union contracts are due to expire Sept. 21 at four metro Toledo stores operated by Meijer, Inc. and Sept. 14 at DaimlerChrysler AG's Jeep assembly plant. United Auto Workers representatives at the plant, who began meeting with company representatives in May, are making plans to take a strike authorization vote in case a settlement isn't reached before the contract runs out.

“... Of our 100-plus demands, the company consistently replied `no' to all but one,” Nick Vuich, union chairman, told 3,650 Jeep workers in a UAW newspaper. Key issues are job security and proposed work-rule changes, he said.

And even at firms not hit by walkouts or strike threats, company-union relations are being strained by health insurance premiums expected to jump an average of 15 to 20 percent this year.

Rick Terpinski, a federal mediator who is often brought in to sticky contract disputes, said he has noticed a slight increase in strikes in Northwest Ohio this year. He was unable to furnish exact numbers, however.

Previous labor harmony may be magnifying current unrest, he noted. “It may be that these strikes are getting more notice because strike activity for some period of time has been really low,” Mr. Terpinski said. Companies are required under law to notify the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, which employs Mr. Terpinski, when contracts are about to expire.

Nationally, major work stoppages hit a historic low of 29 in 2001 and are on track for a further drop this year, according to the U.S. Labor Department. Through April 30, there were four strikes involving 1,000 or more workers, compared with 9 during the same period last year, preliminary federal statistics show.

United Parcel Service and the Teamsters averted a strike last week when they reached a tentative contract settlement that increases pay and creates more full-time jobs.

However, major league baseball remains under a strike threat.

Experts caution that the Labor Department statistics may exaggerate the extent of labor harmony because it doesn't count hundreds of disputes involving 1,000 or fewer workers.

Area walkouts besides Metropolitan Distributing include:

  • Treu House of Munch, Inc., Northwood, wholesaler of Anheuser-Busch and Corona beer in the Toledo area. About 50 members of Local 87 of the United Steelworkers of America have been off the job for nearly a month in the dispute that union members say was prompted by company attempts to cut wages.

  • Toledo Blank, Inc., 135 Fearing Blvd., where 40 members of Teamsters Local 20 have walked picket lines sine July 1 in a contract dispute centered on health insurance changes and a company-proposed wage freeze. The company supplies metal pieces for auto parts and other uses.

    Strikes involving about 500 union members were settled in the past five weeks at Luther Home of Mercy, Williston, a residential care facility for mentally retarded and developmentally disabled adults; Conforming Matrix Corp., 6255 Suder Ave., maker of production-line equipment for coating computers, auto accessories, and other uses; Greif Brothers, Inc., Van Wert, Ohio, manufacturer of cardboard shipping drums; and Johnson Controls, Inc., Northwood, assembler of instrument panels for the Toledo-built Jeep Liberty.

    Unions sought to portray many of the strikes as arising from the employer's unfair labor practices. That is a strategic move aimed at saving the workers' jobs in case the employer tries to permanently replace them, said Prof. Marick Masters, a labor expert at the University of Pittsburgh. Employers are allowed to hire permanent replacements in economic walkouts but not in strikes in which the National Labor Relations Board upholds union contentions of violations.

    Lawyer Ted Iorio, who represents unions in Ohio and Michigan, agrees that strikes and near-strikes are on the rise.

    He attributes it to attempts by employers to increase employee health-insurance co-pays, reduce traditional defined benefit pensions, and cut retiree health benefits. “It's the greed factor,” he said. “It seems like the Enron virus is infecting other employers. If a company isn't worried about cheating its shareholders, its not going to be concerned about its employees.”

    Randy Leffler, a spokesman for the Ohio Manufacturers' Association, hasn't noticed an increase in strikes statewide. He agrees that tension between managers and union representatives may be on the rise, but said it has nothing to do with greed.

    Many employers are facing increases in health insurance premiums of 25 percent or more as well as higher energy costs, along with lower sales and profits in a weakened economy.

    “It creates a tough balancing act for many companies,” Mr Leffler said.

    At Luther Home of Mercy, which settled a strike July 12 involving 185 members of Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the cost of providing medical insurance and prescription drug coverage to employees has soared 50 percent the past 15 months, said the Rev. Don Wukotich, director.

    “We've had real concerns and it will probably continue to be an issue,” he said.

    Workers, who are paid an average of $9 an hour, eventually accepted a contract that increased the $10 prescription co-pay, in some instances, to $15 and $20. But the plan is better than what was proposed before the 10-day walkout, said Becky Williams, a union representative.

    Ms. Williams, who represents union members throughout Ohio, said health care costs and prescription drug coverage are issues “in every set of negotiations I go to.”

    Business customers of Benefit Resource Systems, Inc., Sylvania, are paying 15 to 22 percent more for health insurance on average this year. Increases were “in the single digits” last year, said Barbara Sears, president of the firm, which arranges coverage through providers.

    At one small business she represents, monthly premiums for family coverage are to rise to $650, up 22 percent.

    Hardest hit are groups with rich, unrestricted benefits, lots of older enrollees, and many families, she said.

    It is unclear how prepared union members and their employers were for the strikes.

    Union members said only a fraction of the usual number of deliveries have been seen leaving Metropolitan Distributing, where workers have been on strike since June 25. Workers say they have been without a contact since May, 2001, and are upset that the company wants to cut wages for new and more recent hires.

    A message on the firm's telephone answering machine states: “We are asking our customers to please call in their orders or consider coming down to pick them up. We are delivering daily and thank you so much for your patience during this labor dispute.”

    Sam Botek, Jr., president of the firm, couldn't be reached for comment.

    On the union side, “Everybody is hurting a little,” said member Mike Phillips. Members began collecting strike benefits of $100 a week from the union last week.

    John Armbrust, a warehouse worker and sometimes driver, said he is doing fine. “My wife is working and we have some money saved,” he said. “We saved just in case this happened. We've had 15 months to prepare because that's how long we've been working without a contract.”

    Said striker Rob Wolff, “We're doing fine. We've cut back on going out to dinner. But we're not starving.

    Top drivers made about $47,000 a year under a commission system in use at the wholesaler for years, according to union members.

    At Toledo Blank, where union members make $11 to $12 an hour, the company is seeking a wage freeze the first two years of a three-year agreement and changes in the health insurance plan to cut costs.

    Sales and profits have been down in recent years because of increased foreign competition and price cuts demanded key customers in the auto industry, said Tim McCarthy, a Toledo lawyer who represents the company. The firm shipped 50 percent less product in 2001 than the year before. “This year is looking to be maybe a break-even year,” Mr. McCarthy said.

    Timothy Scott, a striking employee, concedes that the weakened economy complicates workers' campaign to maintain benefits and get raises.

    “If you have a family, medical is real important,” he said. “All of us are hurting,” he said. “Some of us are working second jobs during the strike. I saved up and my wife works.”



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