Workers are getting feisty as they threaten obstinate management with a historic work stoppage.
Energized and unionized workers at one of Madison’s largest private employers have mobilized in case last-minute negotiations fail to avert a looming strike.
Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 39, which represents workers at CUNA Mutual Group (CMG), a financial services company headquartered on Mineral Point Road, held a rally on the steps of the state Capitol Saturday morning. The demonstration pulled a crowd of hundreds of employees, union members, and curious attendees of the Dane County Farmers’ Market, to support the fight for better pay and benefits amid declining union membership and a rise in non-union remote workers.
The atmosphere opened party-like with the brass and reeds of the Forward! Marching Band leading attendees in chants and renditions of a mix of union hymns and throwback hits with class-conscious undertones like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want).” But when the music yielded to speeches, the joy gave way to a festering frustration and anger at CMG management.
Speakers ranged from union leaders, to a member of the local NAACP chapter’s executive committee, to two little girls exasperated that CMG’s negotiation delay tactics have kept the pair’s mother busy and absent.
“My mom is on the union bargaining committee,” 12-year-old Lena told the crowd at the rally. “I’m really tired of how long this whole thing has gone on because I want her to be home more.”
In preparation for a potential work stoppage, OPEIU Local 39 has secured firm monetary commitments from other unions and donors to ensure striking workers would survive without their wages. The union’s recent public actions have demonstrated that it has the organization and wherewithal to survive an indefinite strike if CMG management refuses to meet and discuss worker demands.
In a written statement on Monday, a spokesperson for CMG replied to questions about the rally and the possibility of a strike: “CUNA Mutual Group remains steadfast in our commitment to reaching a fair and market-competitive agreement with the OPEIU Local 39 that meets the needs of our employees and our company. We hope the Union joins us in this effort.”
Battered bastards of bargaining
The current friction between the union and CMG management began in February 2022 when the two parties opened negotiations over a new contract. The company’s unionized office staff have gone over 400 days without an employment agreement.
The union has accused corporate leadership of stalling and repeatedly violating labor law. Since February 2023, the OPEIU Local 39 has filed six charges with the National Labor Relations Board, which remain unresolved.
The union has used these charges to justify moving toward an unfair labor practices (ULP) strike. In a ULP strike, workers can take it upon themselves to ensure that their employer abides by federal labor regulations. Under such a strike, CMG cannot replace employees who participate.
“We’re here today because we need to show the company that we’re ready to strike if we have to,” said Joe Evica, OPEIU Local 39 chief steward, during Saturday’s rally. “None of us want to strike. All of us want a fair contract, and we’re going to do whatever we need to do in order to get a fair contract.”
The crowd cheered Evica, whose firing has become a rallying cry for workers at CMG. Earlier this spring, the company investigated and then fired him. CMG claims it terminated Evica for breaking company policy regarding information sharing, but OPEIU Local 39 calls the firing an act of retaliation, citing the chief steward’s prominent position within the union.
Regardless of the real reason, Evica’s firing has stirred support for resolute action among the union’s membership. A mere mention of his termination prompted a spontaneous chant of “Hands off Joe!” among the crowd gathered at Saturday’s rally.
Mike Farwell, a steward for the local, says you can draw a clear line between Evica’s early April firing and the union’s overwhelming vote to authorize a strike days later. When the union put the question of striking before its membership last month, the rank and file presented near unanimity in their vote with 92 percent authorizing a strike.
“[CMG] really pushed people towards believing that we need to strike in order to make them come to the table, and their firing of Joe really galvanized everybody,” Farwell says. “And [it] pretty much was the switch that flipped for just about everybody that was still on the fence at that point.”
A tight timeline
To avoid a work stoppage, the federal government sent a mediator to facilitate discussions between OPEIU Local 39 and CMG management.
In April, the local’s membership authorized the union to call a strike of up to a week long. The union has until May 19 to initiate a walkout. After that day, leadership would need to call another vote because the strike authorization that workers backed in April included a 30-day use-it-or-lose-it stipulation.
The union says that the federal mediator has limited availability in the coming weeks and can only help facilitate discussions on two dates before the strike authorization expires. However, the mediator encouraged the two parties to continue talks outside of federally organized sessions.
The union proposed a total of 10 dates it could make its bargaining committee available between May 5 and May 18, the last day before it would have to exercise its strike authorization. CMG refused all dates outside of the two when a federal mediator could attend. Representatives for CMG then left the meeting early before deciding on times for the bargaining sessions, according to the union.
CMG disputes OPEIU Local 39’s version of events.
“We’re surprised by the Union’s account of the meeting as we thought we had made progress in coming together,” the company statement sent to Tone Madison on Monday reads. “We have not declined any opportunities to mediate with the Union and have voiced that we are available for additional mediation sessions.”
While OPEIU Local 39 leaders would not close the door on the possibility that the two parties could reach an agreement ahead of the strike deadline, they expressed pessimism given the lack of progress over the last more than 400 days.
“We’re going to have to compress a lot of negotiations in a very short period of time, which means that both sides are going to have to move in pretty large steps each time,” says Farwell. “And that historically has not been the case with proposals the company has given us.”
He went on to say that the union’s bargaining committee is prepared to compromise on its demands, if the company will meet them somewhere in the middle.
The May 19 deadline to call a walkout likely means little, as the union membership appears in lock step and more than ready for a fight with CMG leadership if the company continues to resist its workers’ demands.
The current strike authorization approves a work stoppage lasting no longer than a week. However at Saturday’s event, the word “indefinite” came up several times in reference to theoretical future strike votes.
The crowd at the rally also made its opinion quite clear. Each time a speaker mentioned the prospect of going on strike, those gathered roared their approval.
Finding funds for frustration
The threat of a strike carries only as much weight as its ability to endure, otherwise management need only wait out the workers. It is the class war equivalent of a siege. Someone will starve first.
“Should the union decide to strike, we’re fully prepared to continue to serve our customers without disruption,” the CMG statement says.
To keep its members fed, OPEIU Local 39 has secured funding from several sources. The most significant contribution will come from the local’s international union. Members of OPEIU chapters around the globe have paid union dues, which go into a strike fund to keep food on the tables of those workers in the event of a walkout.
Every member of the local union who participates in the strike will receive $350 per week from OPEIU to make up for lost wages, the equivalent of an $18,200 per year salary.
On top of that, the local has started a GoFundMe to collect money from the community so that workers of any stripe can stand by their fellows and flip a metaphorical finger to management.
The GoFundMe has raised over $1,500 as of this writing, with a goal to secure a total of $10,000. An earlier GoFundMe set up to support Evica, after CMG fired him, raised nearly that much.
Contributions have come from other local unions. SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin, mired in its own fight to secure collective bargaining rights for UW Health nurses, made a contribution to OPEIU Local 39’s strike fund, as did American Postal Workers Union Local 241.
“And we know that [members of other unions] are reaching out to their executive boards as well,” says Evica.
Union leadership projected confidence after Saturday’s rally about the union’s ability to go the distance in the event of a strike.
“I think we could definitely last for quite a while,” says Farwell. “We’ve been at [CMG] for 80 years, this is the first time we’ve ever even strongly considered a strike, let alone it being an imminent threat.”
Remotes replace residents
The question of whether OPEIU Local 39 can win a strike, given its secure strike fund, will likely come down to whether its 450 members can shut down or significantly hinder CMG’s operations. The company currently staffs about 1,400 positions locally, making it one of Madison’s largest employers. Though it has shrunk: over a decade ago it employed approximately 1,700 in the Madison area.
That reduction in local workforce highlights a central concern of the union leadership in this round of contract negotiations: remote work.
While the pandemic ushered in a new age of convenient working from home for a whole host of computer-based jobs, to OPEIU Local 39 the remote employment transition looks like an existential threat.
With CMG embracing remote work, OPEIU Local 39 has bled membership (from over 1,000 at its height to 450 today) as the company replaces local union workers with new non-union independent contractors in other states or countries.
The local wants CMG to agree to fill positions previously held by union workers with new union staffers, thereby at least preserving current solidarity.
A resolution passed by the Madison Common Council on March 21 accuses CMG of outsourcing “over 1,200 positions previously performed in-house and represented by the Union in the last twenty years.”
While the Madison-based CMG workers have lost many of their fellows over the last several decades, Saturday’s rally made clear they had not lost the support of their broader community. Attendees included representatives from several other local unions, the Dane County NAACP, members of the public, and state Representative Lisa Subeck (D-Madison).
“CUNA Mutual Group is in my district,” said Subeck during the rally. “I am calling on CUNA Mutual Group to be a good neighbor by coming to the bargaining table, by negotiating in good faith with their employees.”
OPEIU Local 39 members who spoke at the rally hoped that their good neighbors in Madison could see and empathize with the union’s situation. Evica ended his Tone Madison interview with a call for solidarity and support from workers on and around the isthmus.
“CUNA Mutual group is no different than any other company that we see violating workers’ rights,” says Evica. “They are a billion-dollar company. And whether you sell insurance or you sell coffee, like Starbucks workers do, companies are all interested in making profit over and above everything else that they do.”