TruStage workers have embarked on Madison’s largest strike since Act 10

Stalled union negotiations at the company formerly known as CUNA Mutual Group led to a strike as of May 19.
A photo shows two workers in blue "OPEIU" T-shirts holding up a banner that reads "ULP STRIKE. UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICE" with the union logo. In the background can be seen a campus of office buildings.
The union for some of TruStage’s Madison workers, OPEIU Local 39, has initiated a strike over charges they filed against the company. Under this kind of work stoppage, TruStage is not allowed to replace the workers who participate. Photos by JT Cestkowski.

Stalled union negotiations at the company formerly known as CUNA Mutual Group led to a strike as of May 19.

Membership of Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 39 walked off their jobs at TruStage (formerly CUNA Mutual Group) on Madison’s west side Friday in protest of the company’s refusal to bargain in good faith.

The workers demonstrated that they possess the unity to pull off a historic and long-building strike against one of Madison’s largest employers. Leadership for the union says that the work stoppage, which will last for one week, could resume in the future and continue for a longer duration if TruStage does not begin to compromise during contract negotiations.

At issue: workers with the union are asking for increases in pay, better benefits, and a say over how union workers who retire or quit are replaced. The company has made a habit of using outside staffing agencies to provide remote workers who take up the job responsibilities of a unionized Madisonian.

“[TruStage] remains fully committed to reaching a Collective Bargaining Agreement with OPEIU Local 39,” Barclay Pollak, a company spokesperson, said in a statement. “From the start, CUNA Mutual Group has approached negotiations with the OPEIU Local 39 in good faith and continues to do so.”

While the statement went on to note how the company had made an offer to the union that included changes to wages, and maintenance of various other benefits, it failed to mention that the company continues to refuse to compromise on the issue of outsourcing jobs.

TruStage has shrunk its local footprint, downscaling from approximately 1,700 workers at its Madison headquarters in 2011, to 1,400 today. The reduction in a local workforce, aided by a work-from-home transition that allows staff to live anywhere in the world, parallels a collapse in OPEIU Local 39 membership. At its peak, the union boasted over 1,600 members. Today that number has dwindled to approximately 450.

Yet those few hundred represent over 10 percent of TruStage’s total workforce and nearly a third of its Madison-based staff. Union leaders hope their smaller, but no less mighty, bunch can halt the company’s operations enough to get the multi-billion dollar corporation to compromise.

The view from the picket line

Hundreds of workers marched the sidewalk in front of the TruStage headquarters on Friday, shouting chants and carrying signs, all of the classic trappings of a strike. Another 50 workers joined the picket virtually over Zoom, participating from Kentucky, Nevada, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Washington, and Florida.

Their actions drew quick results: construction workers preparing to demolish a building on the TruStage campus walked off the job in solidarity with the strikers.

A photo shows a picketer holding a hand-lettered sign reading "CORPORATE MOTHER F***ING GREED."
Workers mostly carried standard signs that read “ULP Strike,” but some people brought their own.

“I think the company has always been extremely sensitive to their public image,” says Sarah Larsen, a member of the union’s bargaining team. “We’re hoping that not only the public pressure on their public image brings them back to the bargaining table, but internal pressure from the loss of their expert workforce will cause pressures on the systems we keep running everyday.”

Larsen went on to say that she has heard some middle management within the company are “dismayed and worried” at the prospect of having to keep the business running with only the help of some contractors.

The picket line extended a third of a mile, from the intersection of Mineral Point and Rosa Roads west to a driveway onto the TruStage campus near a strip mall, requiring anyone who wanted to access the corporate offices from Mineral Point Road to cross the picket.

The demonstration was hard to miss as the workers, many of whom wore matching blue T-shirts, flooded the sidewalks and carried or wore signs.

“Corporate Mother F***ing Greed,” read one sign, offering an alternative acronym for CUNA Mutual Financial Group, TruStage’s previous name.

At least one dog joined the humans on the picket line, a very good girl named Chevelle who carried her own sign. It read, “Throw your workers a bone!”

The demonstrators erected an inflatable fat cat wearing a suit, smoking a cigar, clutching a bag of money in one hand, and choking a worker in the other. That dramatic imagery paired well with the 1,200 flags stuck in the ground in the Mineral Point Road median to catch the eye of passing motorists. Each of the flags represent one union job lost over the last several decades to effects like outsourcing.

Private security guards stood watch outside of the company’s main driveway, but did not confront the picketers, who had drawn a literal line on the ground to ensure their participants did not unwittingly stray onto TruStage property.

Bargaining woes

When asked why they chose to go ahead with the strike, union leadership allege an unwillingness by TruStage management to bargain in good faith, an accusation the company denies.

To make their point, union leaders list issue after issue on which they say their employer has failed to compromise.

In the statement from Pollak, the TruStage spokesperson, the company says it has proposed “a double-digit [percentage] immediate pay increase,” as evidence of its commitment to reaching an agreement with OPEIU Local 39.

A photo shows a picketer carrying a hand-lettered sign that reads "Over 400 days without a contract."
The contract between the company and union expired in March of 2022. The two sides have been mired in negotiations ever since.

However, the statement fails to mention that TruStage’s offer is not retroactive, meaning that union workers would not receive the additional compensation for the last 400 days they have worked without a contract from their employer.

Timing is crucial as the union workers have gone without a contractual pay increase at a time when housing and other costs of living have ballooned. Joe Evica, the union’s chief steward for its TruStage membership, also says that the company’s suggested pay raise still remains below the rate of inflation.

On the issue of the union’s pension plan, Pollak says TruStage “maintains retirement benefits for current employees.” Evica says that the company’s most recent proposed contract would strip pensions from all new hires. Pollak points out that TruStage offers a 401(k) plan and matches up to 5 percent of employee contributions. Yet, moving to the 401(k) would amount to cutting retirement benefits in half for all new members of the union, according to Evica.

“When we asked them how much they would save by cutting the pension, they said $189,000,” Evica says. “They just built a $300 million building this past year. They’ve made record profits the last three years. They have $37 billion in assets, and they’re threatening to cut a pension plan to save themselves $189,000.”

Last year, the company made $5.2 billion in revenue and $343 million in profit.

With regards to healthcare, Pollak says the company will maintain current healthcare benefits, with the addition of a health savings account option. But a continuation of the status quo means members of the union who work outside the Madison area will find themselves limited to a high-deductible plan, unless they plan to charter flights to Madison to take advantage of the low deductible in-network option.

A photo shows a group of workers standing in a line in front of an office building, one making an announcement via megaphone and several others holding up a sign for Voces de la Frontera.
Chief Steward Joe Evica addresses his fellow workers and union members during a press conference on the picket line outside of TruStage’s offices.

But the biggest area of contention for OPEIU Local 39 centers around how TruStage replaces union members who leave the company.

The local’s membership shrank to approximately 450 as workers retired or quit their jobs. When hiring their replacements, the company has moved work out of the Madison area. In some cases, it has hired outside agencies that provide contract labor. As a result, people who carry out much of TruStage’s day-to-day operations do not directly work for the company and therefore are not covered by the union’s labor agreement.

All of this presents an existential crisis for OPEIU Local 39, a union that once boasted a membership north of 1,600 Madison workers. It wants a provision included in the next contract that ensures the company replaces any unionized position vacated in the future with a new union worker.

“It is a form of union-busting,” Evica says. “Instead of doing it all at once, they want to slowly bleed the union dry. They want to replace all good-paying union jobs with part-time, flexible, no-benefitted contractors.”

Evica says the company has made “virtually no significant movement” toward compromise on the issue.

Community support

More people than just employees showed up for the strike outside of TruStage headquarters on Mineral Point Road. The greater Madison and labor community stepped in as well.

Teams from the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the union that represents UW-Madison graduate student workers, rotated on half-hour shifts manning the picket line. The students, despite not working for TruStage, saw common cause with the workers of OPEIU Local 39.

“They’re fighting to keep good jobs here. They’re fighting to make sure that everyone has a good standard of living, because they’ve seen their own crumble,” says Sara Gia Trongone, a member of TAA and the OPEIU Local 39 Solidarity Committee. “If we don’t stick behind these workers, quite frankly, we’re all lost. The university is not immune to these same dynamics, so I very much see these struggles as linked.”

A photo shows a small dog licking her nose while attending a labor protest.
Chevelle, a dog, takes a break to lick her nose after making several laps of the picket line which stretches about a third of a mile.

Speakers at a press conference on the picket line Friday morning included members of the South Central Federation of Labor and Voces de la Frontera. Representatives from both organizations spoke in support of the strike and relayed that their organizations saw their own struggles and the union’s fight as part of a larger battle for the rights of working people.

The picket line was not the only show of solidarity that TAA made with OPEIU Local 39. On Tuesday, TAA members joined forces with Worker Justice Wisconsin, South Central Federation of Labor, Service Workers International Union Healthcare Wisconsin, American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, and UW-Madison University Labor Council, among others, to present TruStage with letters bearing 2,700 signatures from the Madison area, supporting the company’s organized workers in their contract fight.

“As people of faith, our values are shaped by our sacred scriptures,” reads one letter from First Baptist Church of Madison. “Providing racial justice, inclusion and equity provisions, fair wages, retroactive annual across-the-board increases, affordable healthcare for remote-out-of-state employees, and permanent jobs are natural expressions of those values.”

OPEIU Local 39 also drew a crowd at a May 6 rally on the state Capitol steps. Workers with the union made a strong showing, but the event also pulled members of various other unions, elected officials, the Dane County chapter of the NAACP, and members of the general public.

Expired contract, escalating conflict

TruStage and OPEIU Local 39 opened contract negotiations in February of 2022. The work agreement between the two expired in March 2022, meaning that unionized workers within the company have labored for over 400 days without a contract.

Negotiations broke down in January 2023, and TruStage and the union did not meet again until earlier this month. However, during those four months, OPEIU Local 39 kept busy. The union filed seven unfair labor practice complaints against the company with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the government agency tasked with adjudicating labor disputes and union elections.

The charges the union levied included accusations that TruStage refused to bargain in good faith. This and the other disputes laid the groundwork for Friday’s strike.

A photo shows a group of workers on a sidewalk carrying signs that read "ULP STRIKE" with the logo of their union, OPEIU Local 39.
Friday morning’s kick off of the week-long strike brought over 100 workers to the picket line, with another 50 joining virtually.

Under federal law, unions can punish companies for not abiding by labor statutes by initiating an unfair labor practices (ULP) strike. Under a ULP work stoppage, an employer, in this case TruStage, cannot replace workers who participate.

An inability to fill roles vacated by striking staff could have adverse impacts on the company’s operations and, by extension, its bottom line.

The union asked its membership in April to authorize a work stoppage of up to a week long. In a staggering display of solidarity, 92 percent of union members voted in favor. Union leadership had until May 19 to put a strike into motion. Any later and leaders would have had to ask for another strike authorization, since the April vote included a 30-day use-it-or-lose-it stipulation.

With the threat of a strike hanging over their heads, TruStage leadership agreed to meet at the bargaining table for the first time since January. The two sides sat down several times earlier this month and negotiated with the help of a mediator from the federal government.

However, the union did not see enough tangible progress, and even filed another complaint with the NLRB after the company abruptly canceled one of the few scheduled bargaining sessions remaining before Friday’s strike.

OPEIU Local 39 hopes that this one-week work stoppage will serve as a warning to TruStage: negotiate in good faith or prepare for a longer strike.

The union has held open the possibility of another longer strike if TruStage does not make progress at the negotiating table. At a rally earlier this month held on the Capitol steps to show worker resolve, union leaders used the word “indefinite” when speculating on future work stoppages.

What the future holds

Joe Evica, the union’s chief steward for its TruStage membership, reiterated at Friday’s strike that a longer work stoppage remains very much on the table.

“Our members have authorized up to a one-week unfair labor practice strike, but as a democratic union our members will get to decide,” he says. “If we want to vote to extend the strike, that is something our members will get to consider.”

He says the future of the strike hinges on TruStage’s willingness to negotiate in good faith. He emphasized that he wants the company to stop stalling.

In a press release sent the night before the strike, the union says it proposed negotiating on 10 of the remaining 13 days in May. The company declined all but one.

“They need to get back to the bargaining table,” Evica said. “Bargain a fair contract. That is the ideal scenario.”

Evica himself is at the center of some worker frustration. TruStage fired him earlier this year for allegedly breaking company information-sharing policy, but the union contends that his termination was retaliation as part of the contract negotiations.

Evica’s fellow union members have rallied around him. OPEIU Local 39 filed an unfair labor practice charge against TruStage over the incident, and “Hands off Joe” was a chant used on the picket line Friday.

Larsen did not mince words when it came to TruStage’s firing of Evica.

“It’s thuggish behavior and they should be ashamed of themselves,” she said.

As for the ongoing contract negotiations, Larsen feels like the soured relationship between OPEIU Local 39 and TruStage did not have to be this way.

“I think the company underestimated us,” Larsen said. “I think they are going to live to regret … the opportunity they squandered.”

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