CUNA Mutual Group was founded on lofty principles. Is it living up to them?

The company’s enlightened public image stands in stark contrast to its treatment of workers.
An illustration shows an office worker seated at a desk atop a teetering stack of paper that reaches into the sky.
Illustration by Andrew Mulhearn. Image description: An illustration shows an office worker seated at a desk atop a teetering stack of paper that reaches into the sky.

The company’s enlightened public image stands in stark contrast to its treatment of workers.

CUNA Mutual Group (CMG) on Tuesday disciplined a leader of the union that represents about 450 of its Madison-based employees. The union, Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 39, calls this a retaliatory move, as negotiations for a new contract drag on. Concurrently, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has also taken up several complaints accusing CMG of engaging in unfair labor practices.

In a press release, the union announced that CMG on Tuesday, March 14 “issued notice of immediate suspension and investigation” of Joe Evica, chief steward of the OPEIU local. The union also says CMG has retained the services of Ogletree Deakins, a law firm that frequently comes up in discussions of union-busting.

“CMG has not provided detailed information on Evica’s alleged infractions, vaguely stating the matter is ‘disclosure of company information,'” the press release states.


“What the company is doing is a transparent and desperate effort to retaliate against [Evica] and our Union for standing strong and fighting for a contract that we deserve,” union member Will Roberts is quoted as saying in the press release. 

The union has announced that it is filing additional charges with the NLRB. It has also launched a public petition demanding “immediate cessation of retaliatory tactics; a neutral third party investigator; and protection of confidential union communications from management.” As of this article’s publication,  the petition has received more than 500 signatures.

CUNA Mutual Group’s discipline of Evica is unprecedented in the more than 50-year relationship between the union and the company. Firing union leadership is a practice most firms abandoned a generation ago. (Full disclosure: I have served as a consultant to the OPEIU local.)

Initially, CMG demanded to meet with union leaders on Wednesday, March 15. The meeting has been postponed until next week.

It is ironic that CMG’s initial effort to reach Evica about the disciplinary action occurred when he was meeting with Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway, asking her support for a Madison Common Council resolution in support of the union’s bargaining efforts. The Common Council is scheduled to take up the resolution at its March 21 meeting.

OPEIU Local 39’s members have also voted overwhelmingly to support direct action, should it become necessary.

CMG has enjoyed high rates of profit and a dominant position in the business of serving credit unions, steadily expanding its business into a variety of financial services. The big question is, why is CMG doing this now? The company is about to launch a rebranding effort, and the last thing it needs is to attack its workforce. There is no economic reason for the company to take such a hard line against the union, nor to drop what amounts to a nuclear bomb on the ongoing negotiations.

To understand the current crisis, one needs some background on the long-term changes to CMG’s business model, and context on the conflict that’s been brewing since the union’s last contract with the company expired in 2022.

Stalled negotiations and good PR

CUNA Mutual Group was founded on the principle of people helping people and is guided by a purpose to help people achieve financial security—a purpose that continues to guide us. We recognize and acknowledge our nation’s history holds centuries of oppression and systemic racism that lives on today. This must change. We understand that the work we’ve been doing to address racial injustice and social inequities requires further effort, and we need to do more. 

This is CUNA Mutual Group’s social justice statement on the Madison-founded company’s website, which goes on to say: “1) We believe that a brighter financial future should be accessible to everyone.” CMG also reports that, in 2021, it pledged $7.9 million dollars to support the communities it serves. More recently, CMG made headlines with a $1.5 million donation that will enable construction to begin on the long-delayed Madison Public Market. 

But CMG’s vision of the future does not seem to be all-inclusive. Its workers, represented by the union, have been in negotiations with the company for a new contract since February 2022. Little, if any, progress has been achieved.

In fact, there’s been so little progress that the union felt obligated to file unfair labor practices charges against CMG on February 8. The union alleges that the company has delayed bargaining sessions and refused to provide information in a timely manner. The union also claims that CMG has retaliated and discriminated against union members by withholding bonuses and commissions during the bargaining process. 

A union can go to the NLRB and claim that a company is not following proper bargaining procedures as defined under the National Labor Relations Act, or that it is violating provisions of the Act as defined in its rules. Unions have the right to strike to enforce decisions of the NLRB. Unfair labor practice strikes require the employer to take back all striking employees at the conclusion of such strikes, unlike “economic strikes,” which offer no such protection.


In an innovative and possibly game-changing move, on March 6 the union filed additional charges against CMG under the newly implemented “joint employer” rules regarding contractors. The union contends that CMG’s use of contractors—supervision of contract work, discipline of contractors through firing, and their ground-level direction provided to contractors—makes CMG a joint employer for contractors performing work for the company. Evica says that if the NLRB sides with the union, “The employer would be required to bargain over all aspects of the terms and conditions of their employment, in the same way that they would bargain over union members at our company.” Of course, if this were to happen, one rationale for CUNA Mutual Group to use outside contractors would be undermined. 

A shifting workplace

Since contract negotiations began last year, the union has focused on a five issues: 1) a wage increase that would make up for purchasing power lost to inflation; 2) maintenance of defined benefit pension plans for all represented workers—including new hires; 3) maintenance of their current health insurance plans with protections against high deductibles; 4) employment assurances; and 5) remote work. 

Over the last 10 years CUNA Mutual Group has reduced Madison-based employment from about 800 workers to about 400. CMG hires firms which, in turn, contract with individual contractors whose wages, benefits, and working conditions may be inferior to those of workers in Madison. The union has emphasized that a wage settlement alone would not be enough to satisfy the employment concerns of its members—they also want some assurance of job security. As a source remarked last summer after another fruitless negotiating session: “What good is a great wage and benefit settlement if there are no jobs?”  

The union also wants remote work to continue. While the company indicated it was open to the idea, it proposed restrictions unacceptable to the union. One such proposal allowed the firm to make unilateral changes in remote work assignments. As a result of zero progress resolving the key economic and job security issues, the Local 39 began the process of mobilizing for a strike. The union has been polling members, making sure they understand the risks involved and are committed to achieving the five goals.

While doing internal organizing, the local has also reached out to the broader credit union community. Earlier this year, the union sent a letter to 7,000 credit unions explaining the situation from the workers’ point of view. OPEIU Local 39 is also asking the Dane County Board of Supervisors and the Madison Common Council to pass resolutions in support of the workers at CMG.

As of this article’s publication, there is no progress in negotiations.

The bargaining and the union’s outreach to the credit union world is occurring as CUNA Mutual Group is about to ratify a strategic shift in its business beyond just servicing credit unions. For years CMG has provided other financial services, including insurance policies through a subsidiary called TruStage. CMG announced in May 2022 that it plans to rebrand all of its divisions under the TruStage name. The company says this change is a recognition of its many services. CMG also claims that the new branding will mean that it is still committed to the credit union movement, even as it emphasizes other aspects of its business. However, as the firm notes, it now has offices in Madison and Washington, DC.

The unwillingness of the firm to reach some accommodation with its workers raises a fundamental question: Is CUNA Mutual Group committed to Madison, and to maintaining a workforce with benefits and decent wages? It is clear that CMG has the technical ability to outsource much of the work previously done in Madison. The company has made full use of those technical abilities, as it has moved a considerable portion of work elsewhere. The employer’s ability to conduct its business using workers at remote locations, many in other parts of the world, is a challenge for the union. However, much of the work done by union members is highly specialized and involves the use of specific systems designed for the work done by CMG. In the union’s view, there are many departments where contractors could not immediately step in and perform the work, if at all. 

While the company talks about charity, keep in mind how much that charity is costing the Madison community. The sums involved in CUNA Mutual Group’s giving—while crucial to the many groups receiving them—pale in comparison to the income that would have gone to the Madison community if CMG had not moved hundreds of jobs out of the area. Likewise, the costs to the community of refusing to offer new hires a defined benefit pension plan are considerable. Finally, based on CMG’s publicly available reports, there is no financial reason why it can’t both keep up its level of charitable giving and meet the needs of its workers. For instance, a press release about CUNA’s 2021 financials touts “$5 billion of revenue, $622 million of net income and $36.7 billion in assets under management.” In this context, its $7.9 million in charitable giving that year seems far less impressive.

Much is at stake for the workers at CUNA Mutual Group and the Madison community. The union, based on the strong and unified support of its members, is exploring all means possible to increase its leverage. CUNA Mutual Group can take seriously its public credo—”We believe that a brighter financial future should be accessible to everyone”—and begin making contract proposals that meet the basic needs of its workers. As the CMG’s own website notes: “We do this with the help of our amazing employees.”

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