TruStage strikers went back to work; in 26 hours, bargaining stalled again 

Unionized workers weigh a second strike to bring the large Madison company back to the table.
Photo of a crowd of workers on Capitol Square wearing blue union shirts and carrying signs. A sign in the foreground reads, "2022 profit: $343 million. 2022 raises: $0."
OPEIU members picket on Capitol Square on July 29. Photo by Alice Herman.

Unionized workers weigh a second strike to bring the large Madison company back to the table.

On Saturday, June 29, as crowds of shoppers thronged Madison’s downtown farmers market, a group of union workers from TruStage, the company formerly known as CUNA Mutual Group, gathered at the corner of State Street and Dayton, a block from the Capitol building. Joined by a marching band and multiple Democratic lawmakers, they had gathered to draw attention to the union’s drawn-out contract negotiations with TruStage, which have stalled over the issues of healthcare, wages, and the company’s use of contract labor, which has increased dramatically in the last decade.

After striking for two weeks and seeing some initial evidence TruStage was open to negotiating over the bread-and-butter issues that had stalled negotiations, workers voted to suspend their strike on June 2. But nearly two months since voting to return to work, workers say the company has not budged on the union’s top demands. The slow negotiations—which have been ongoing for more than 400 days—have prompted the union to continue to publicly mobilize with demonstrations like the one on Saturday, while continuing to raise money for another strike down the line. The stalled negotiations also highlight the union’s diminishing power as contract labor eclipses the number of workers represented by Office and Professional Employees International (OPEIU) Local 39.

“One of the reasons that we went on strike was because the company had stopped even meeting to bargain,” says Joel Bryhan, a software engineer at TruStage and a member of the union. “We went off strike because they had come back to bargain—though within 26 hours of coming back to work, they canceled all of their scheduled bargaining sessions.” 

Workers say the company’s sudden reversal foretold another protracted and frustrating bargaining session that resulted in tentative language around issues including remote work and equity initiatives at the company, but no significant progress on issues of pay and healthcare. The union is continuing to move forward with negotiations while rallying public support, elevating concerns to the level of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and building towards a second possible strike.

At the Saturday rally, workers pointed repeatedly to the company’s rebrand as “TruStage” and its stated mission “to make a brighter financial future accessible to everyone.”

“Is a brighter financial future in the cards for TruStage workers whose wages are not keeping pace with inflation?” Vernon Winters, a union member, asked the crowd on Saturday. “How does their future look without affordable healthcare benefits? What if their jobs are outsourced to an offshore workforce?” 

The union estimates that TruStage employs about 1,200 non-union contractors, meaning unionized staff—about 450 workers—make up less than 40 percent of the workforce. Low union density within the company likely helped TruStage ride out the union’s two-week-long strike, which started May 19. When they voted to suspend their strike, union members empowered leadership to call another strike if bargaining stalled within 30 days. Two months after that strike, workers at the rally on Saturday argued that progress had stalled and noted that a second strike could be in the cards if the company doesn’t budge on negotiations. 

During the contract negotiation process, the union has alleged TruStage violated labor law by refusing to bargain in good faith, firing the union’s chief steward, and refusing to turn over information the union is legally entitled to during negotiations. On July 12, the NLRB found one of those charges—that TruStage failed to disclose information during bargaining—meritorious, and ordered the company to turn over the requested documents. The labor agency has not yet ruled on the unfair labor practice charge related to the chief union steward, Joe Evica, who was fired on April 4.

Now, the union says TruStage has only partly cooperated with the labor board. 

Responding to the union’s charge that the company has not complied fully with the NLRB directive, the company stated in a July 31 email that “We are cooperating with the National Labor Relations Board’s ongoing investigations and will continue to do so.” In response to the union’s calls for public support, the company added that it is “encouraged by progress in recent weeks and would like union leaders to work with us to complete a fair deal on behalf of employees. From the start, TruStage has negotiated with our employees’ best interests top of mind. We want our employees to have a fair and market-competitive contract. We also respect the rights of our employees to voice their opinions throughout the process.”

The backlog of unfair labor practice charges—the union has filed at least nine since February 2023—reflects the NLRB’s broader trouble investigating and enforcing labor law. In 2022, the general counsel and chair of the NLRB raised the alarm on stagnant funding for the office and the labor shortage within its own ranks. “Adjusting for inflation, we have lost one quarter of our purchasing power in the past nine years,” they wrote, pointing to the fact that funding has not changed for the office since fiscal year 2014. “While the Agency has increased its productivity in recent years, staff cannot keep up with an increasing workload.”

During the bargaining process, TruStage has maintained representation by attorneys with Jackson Lewis, one of the most prominent anti-union law firms in the industry. Although TruStage has not publicly disclosed the attorneys’ rates, firms in the “union avoidance” industry, which has grown to an estimated $340 million per year, are known to charge hundreds of dollars an hour for their services, with employers shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to enlist the services of union busters. 

“It’s like trying to negotiate with a dementor,” says Bryhan, comparing TruStage’s hired attorney to the soul-sucking creatures of Harry Potter. “This is a big cash cow for them, because the company is willing to throw as much money as they can at the lawyers rather than spending it on the people who make the money.” 

Looking forward, the union says a second strike, over the ongoing dispute, is not out of the question. It has begun fundraising to support workers in the event of another walkout. “No employee should fear financial ruin for standing up for themselves and their coworkers in support of a fair and equitable contract,” the union wrote in a post online. 

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