Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Workers forced to strike for health care

By Pepe Lozano
People's Weekly World

CHICAGO — Every month Norma Trinidad gets her medication refilled. In her last trip to the pharmacy she was told her health insurance had been terminated. Ordinarily Trinidad pays about $48 each refill. Yet now she was being charged $400. It was at that point she found out the company she’s worked at for the last 23 years had abruptly canceled her health insurance.

Trinidad and her union, Teamsters Local 743, voted unanimously to strike Aug. 24 against their company, SK Hand Tool Corporation, on the city’s southwest side.

The company, which also has a factory in McCook, Ill., makes metal tools. It has been in business for 88 years and employs more than 70 workers at both locations.

The workers have been picketing in front of the Chicago and McCook factories.

Trinidad said she and her co-workers were never notified about the company’s decision to unilaterally pull their health coverage until three weeks after it was cut off.

Many say Trinidad’s story, like millions across the country, is a perfect example of why the fight for health care reform is extremely critical for working families.

“President Obama is leading a national debate about how to protect hard-working Americans from callous employers like SK Hand Tools,” said Richard Berg, Teamsters Local 743 president, in a statement. The company, he said, “has left us no choice but to strike for our basic needs – health care,” he said.

Trinidad, a machine setup operator, stamps products such as sockets, ratchets, screwdrivers, extensions, pliers and other mechanical tools.

“We built this company and we think what the owner is doing is totally unfair. We want our insurance back,” she said.

“The company just continues to kick us when we are already down,” she said on the picket line. “We are not striking because of money, we are here due to unfair labor practices.”

Trinidad said she and her union brothers and sisters are taking shifts outside the Chicago factory and plan to be there 24/7. And they don’t intend to back down any time soon.

“Rain or shine, we plan on having people out here for as long as it takes,” she said.

John Oprzedek has worked at SK Tools for 13 years. It’s been over a year since he had a major kidney transplant that now requires daily medication. Since the company stopped his health insurance Oprzedek said he has paid roughly $1,200 out of his pocket for his medicine.

“I am really scared for myself and my family,” he said. “Without health insurance I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”

Trinidad, Oprzedek and others are struggling to pay for their health care needs with no insurance. The wife of one worker is on a special pump for diabetes, said Trinidad. He’s worked at the company for 37 years, she notes.

Whether it’s paying for high blood pressure pills, a colonoscopy exam, or a $20,000 hernia operation, they are all left out in the cold, the workers say.

Gina Alvarez, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 743, said, “These are loyal members and some have been working here for more than 30 years. Since the new owner acquired the company he has not stopped asking for concessions and now he has violated the contract.”

In 2005, SK Hand Tool Corporation was bought out by its management and is now independently operated by two shareholders. In 2008, Claude Fuger, was elected president and CEO of the company.

Alvarez said the health and welfare of the workers has been a part of the union contract for more than 30 years. “When they took away their health insurance with no notice — no nothing, it was a complete shock to our members,” she said.

According to the one source, Fuger told the workers he could no longer afford both their health insurance and their pensions and threatened them with bankruptcy.

Meanwhile the National Labor Relations Board has issued an unfair labor practice complaint alleging the company has bargained illegally by canceling the workers’ health care coverage.

On top of stopping their health insurance the company is also asking for a pay reduction. The workers currently earn on average $14 per hour. The company is now asking for an additional $4 pay cut in the first six months, which would lower that average to just over the minimum wage. The workers’ wages have been frozen for the last six years.

Union steward David Biedrzycki said in a statement, “We are willing to make concessions to save the company but we can’t lose our health insurance.” He added, “They expect us to pay for our health coverage out-of-pocket when they’re also asking for a 20 percent pay cut — we can’t afford this.”

Trinidad notes the company hasn’t “given us a penny in over six years.”

Joe Truschke has worked at the Chicago factory for over two years. He’s worried about the well being of his family. “I have three kids that depend on my health insurance,” he said. “What’s going to happen if one of them gets sick?”

“Nobody wins in a strike, the workers lose and so does the company. We just hope we can find some middle ground,” he said.

Trinidad says she can’t sleep at night because she’s constantly thinking about how she is going to afford her health care expenses. Just last week Trinidad’s doctor told her she caught strep throat. She ended up paying for the doctor visit and her medication out of her pocket. The doctor gave her pills because she couldn’t afford the injection, she said.

Trinidad said she knows how important the fight for health care is, especially with the national debate taking place right now. She hopes people will understand why the strike she is leading is an important battle worth fighting.

“We’re not asking for a luxury,” she said. “We’re just asking for a basic necessity.”

Teamsters Local 743 represents 11,000 workers throughout the Chicago-land area working in manufacturing, health care, clerical, food service, warehouse and maintenance industries. The Teamsters local has represented the SK workers since 1968.

Historic Pullman hosts Chicago Labor Day events

Celebrating America's workers

CHICAGO — On September 7 the Illinois AFL-CIO, Chicago Federation of Labor, Illinois Labor History Society, numerous other unions and social organizations join with groups from the south side Pullman community to host a rally and celebration of labor history this Labor Day. The event will begin at 2 p.m. and will take place in the famous factory building at Chicago’s Pullman State Historic Site on 111th Street and Cottage Grove Ave.

Several speakers — including Gov. Patrick Quinn — will be celebrating the achievements of American working families and past and ongoing struggles for union wages, rights of citizenship in the workplace, and equal opportunity in the workplace. A special invitation has been extended to President Barack Obama and U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. The free program will be moderated by WCPT Radio host and longtime newsman Dick Kay.

Festivities include the annual Labor Day Bike Ride and rally, historical exhibits and presentations, music, food, performances and special guest speeches. Factory and Pullman Historic District tours will be offered following the event.

The storm center of one of the most famous industrial conflicts of the 19th century was the community where workers for industrialist George Pullman built the famous Pullman railroad sleeping cars.

It was here Gene Debs, a founder of the American Railway Union (ARU), became the presidential standard bearer for the Socialist Party. Later he received over 1 million votes while in federal prison for opposition to America’s entry into World War I.

The charming and planned Pullman community, with its unique architecture and design, remains largely unchanged to this day. A centrally located neighborhood park and garden welcomes family picnics. A Visitor’s Center offers artifacts to view and mementos for sale. The Florence Hotel, with its spacious verandah, provides an elegant centerpiece to the area.

Although the sleeping car factory is partially gone, the dramatic Clock Tower remains and industrial artifacts from the vanished steel industry are on display. The hotel and factory property are now managed by the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

The list of sponsors for the Historic Pullman Labor Day events includes the State of Illinois AFL-CIO, Chicago Federation of Labor, Chicago Building Trades Council, Illinois Labor History Society, Pullman Business Council, Historic Pullman Foundation, Pullman Civic Organization, Pullman State Historic Site, Bronzeville/Black Chicagoan Historical Society, Calumet Heritage Partnership, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the Chicago Center for Working Class Studies, Arise Chicago, Jobs with Justice, A. Phillip Randolph/Pullman Porters Museum, SEIU, AFSCME Council 31, United Steelworkers, UE Illinois, United Food and Commercial Workers, Ironworkers Local 1 & 63, Electrical Workers, Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, Illinois State Senator Donne Trotter, and Illinois State Representatives Connie Howard and Marlow Colvin.
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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Teamsters Strike Over Lost Health Insurance

For Immediate Release: For More Information:
Monday, August 24, 2009 Sarah Sarah Hainds, (773) 254-7460
Cell: (773) 860-0306

Workers and their families forced to delay important medical treatment

Teamsters Local 743 union members working at SK Hand Tools voted unanimously to strike today at 3:30pm due to the company’s unilateral withdrawal of the workers’ health insurance without notice.

The U.S. National Labor Relations Board has issued an unfair labor practice complaint alleging that the company has bargained illegally by stopping health care coverage without notice.

“President Obama is leading a national debate about how to protect hard-working Americans from callous employers like SK Hand Tools,” said Teamsters Local 743 president Richard Berg. “This French-owned company has left us no choice but to strike for our basic needs, health care,” he continued.

SK Hand Tools has been making high quality metal tools in Chicago for 88 years. SK workers have been in contract negotiations for nine months. The company has been in the Teamsters union since 1968.

“We are willing to make concessions to save the company,” union steward David Biedrzycki stated, “but we can’t lose our health insurance. They expect us to pay for our health coverage out-of-pocket when they’re also asking for a 20% pay cut – we can’t afford this!” The workers’ wages have been frozen for the last six years.

The workers currently earn on average $14 per hour. The pay reduction that management is proposing includes an additional $4 cut in the first 6 months, which would lower that average to just over minimum wage. SK Hand Tools employs about 70 workers.

SK Hand Tools sells its merchandise through its website and through stores like Sears & Roebuck and SK also makes some of the Sears Craftsman products.

Teamsters Local 743 represents 11,000 workers throughout the Chicagoland area working in manufacturing, health care, clerical, food service, warehouse and maintenance industries.


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Don't close women's health clinic! Protesters tell University of Chicago

By Will Hackman
Chicago — The University of Chicago Medical Center, citing financial shortfalls, is closing its Women’s Health Center on 47th Street, which annually serves thousands of women on the South Side. Protests over the last two months forced UCMC to delay the official closing, but at present, rather than posting a new closing-date, the medical center is quietly dismantling the clinic piecemeal. The gynecology unit, for example, has been ‘transferred’ to the main medical center. By doing this, the administration hopes to ‘phase out’ the women’s clinic with as little public notice as possible.

UCMC has simultaneously opened a new clinic in the North Side Gold Coast neighborhood, the wealthiest community in Chicago. Whereas the medical center once claimed a commitment to serving its surrounding community, it is now brazenly withdrawing medical services from its impoverished neighbors in order to make them available to those with incomes and insurance-policies sufficient to cover the exorbitant cost of health-care.

At noon, Wednesday, August 5th, CHART (Coalition for Healthcare Access Responsibility and Transparency) bused members of the Hyde Park-Kenwood community to the Gold Coast clinic to protest the 47th Street closing. Among those in attendance was Mel Rothenberg, Professor Emeritus at the University of Chicago, who faced a wait period of three months for an appointment at the UCMC cardiology department. He received an appointment at the Gold Coast clinic and was seen in half an hour.

However, many members of the Hyde Park-Kenwood community lack the insurance coverage, the time necessary for the commute, or quite simply the income necessary to make a visit to the North Side clinic possible.

Giudi Weiss, a spokesperson for Illinois Single Payer Coalition, discussed the connection between private, for-profit hospitals, private insurance companies, and the growing gap between the affluent few, who can afford health-care and insurance, and the vast working poor who cannot.

Finally, Richard del Rio, representative for Graduate Students United, an unaffiliated union currently organizing students and adjunct faculty at University of Chicago, asked those present “to join us in condemning the landlords and the health barons,” those hospital administrators who, as good agents of capital, discard the physicians’ oath to ‘first, do no harm’ and instead shutter medical clinics for the indigent.

The clinic representative declined to put protesters in contact with administration, instead referring us to a medical center spokesman. But Marcia Rothenberg, an activist for the Illinois Single-Payer Coalition, objected, “we’re not interested in talking with public relations people. We want to talk to the policy-makers.”

For more information:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Hundreds hear Kucinich at Illinois Healthcare Speak Out

By Jon Allen
People's Weekly World

AURORA, Ill. - The peace movement jumped into the nationwide upsurge for health care reform in a big way last Sunday when two big antiwar organizations in Chicago's far western suburbs, Aurora Citizens for Peace and Fox Valley Citizens for Peace and Justice, packed a community center to overflow capacity here in a Healthcare Speak Out.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, who ran for his party's nomination in 2008, was the featured speaker on a list that included Illinois leaders of the movements for peace and justice, elected representatives in the Illinois state legislature, Democratic and Green Party activists and a labor journalist.

Kucinich was the first to join Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., in sponsoring H.R. 676, a House bill that would essentially create improved Medicare for all. He, along with Conyers, is among 60 members of the House who have signed a letter saying they cannot support a reform bill that does not include a strong government-run public health care option and a progressive funding mechanism that refrains from adding taxes or any other financial burdens on working families.

The crowd cheered wildly when Kucinich announced that he has been able to add an amendment to the bill emerging from the House that would, if passed, allow states to pursue their own single-payer systems in the near future. They cheered again when he noted, “a state like Illinois could well become one of the first states to make this happen.”

The Ohio congressman received some of his biggest applause when he condemned the “obscene wealth gap that exists in this country” and when he noted that health insurance companies are among the corporations receiving the government sanctioned favors that have created this disparity. “Ultimately,” he said, “the only way to fix this economy is to close this gap.”

Illinois state Rep. Mary Flowers, who has a Chicago district, said the fight was about more than just who has insurance. “The real issue is access to good care,” she said. “We must prevent insurance companies from ever again being able to deny anyone the care they need. The best thing,” she added, “would be to get rid of the insurance companies all together.”

John Wojcik, labor editor of Peoples World, praised the activists who had packed the auditorium. “This fight for health care reform,” he said, “is the opening shot in a struggle that can usher in a whole new era of major reform in the people' favor. You all deserve credit but you all have a historic responsibility here. The reforms of the 1930s lasted a long time because they were fueled by a powerful and united mass movement that was labor-led.”

“Gatherings like this are part of what it will take to build another such movement that will ensure the big changes we are about to see will also last a long time. This fight for health care reform must therefore be united and it must grow.”

As the crowd jumped up in applause, he said, “Then we will see a tomorrow with big and beautiful things we can only now imagine today.”

Health reformers cheer public option, single-payer vote

'Astroturfers' stand on sidelines, insurance insider blows the whistle

By Terrie Albano
People's Weekly World
CHICAGO – “To protest against health care is like protesting against air,” said one woman who had stopped after work to attend the Aug. 4 health care reform rally here.

She was talking about the twenty or so anti-health reform protesters stationed across the street and holding signs like “Just say no to socialism” and “Keep the change” who were trying to drown out the 700-800 people rallying for health care reform.

But seasoned rally speakers like Democratic lawmakers Jan Schakowsky and Danny Davis, Gov. Pat Quinn and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (who is running for U.S. Senate) fired up the crowd – preparing people for “the fight of their lifetime.”

This is a “battle of biblical dimensions,” Rep. Schakowsky roared. On one side is an industry that makes “enormous profits” while leaving 50 million Americans uninsured, she said.

But on “our side” are millions of Americans who want health care reform NOW! she said. Plus, she added, “our side has the distinct advantage of not making stuff up,” an obvious reference to the far-right and lobbyist-funded “front groups” like Patients United Now, which is reportedly paying people to go around and tell their so-called health care stories.

Schakowsky urged the crowd to organize for the next five weeks like never before. She urged support for the reform bill HR 3200 with a strong public health insurance option. All four of the five bills that have come out of House committees “can be improved,” Schakowsky said, but the insurance lobby fears most “competition from a public plan that would lower costs and doesn’t make CEOs rich.” The “public option” would be a government-administered program that would compete with private insurance.

The health care reform plan referred to as “single-payer” will also come up for a vote on the House floor in September, a concession won from all the negotiations with the more conservative Democrats known as “Blue Dogs.”

“And I will vote yes!” Schakowsky vowed.

Perhaps the most under-reported part of the Aug. 4 rally – meant to coincide with President Barack Obama’s birthday, (and, yes, Happy Birthday was sung) – was an unassuming man who once was a powerful insider of a multi-billion dollar insurance company.

Wendell Potter, former head of public relations for CIGNA-turned whistleblower, said after 20-years of knowing what went on in the insurance suites, “I finally had the guts to tell Congress.” Potter testified in June to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, after which Big Insurance hurried into damage control mode.

“Folks, this is evil,” he said about the industry that is based on “Wall Street greed.”

Potter said it was “unacceptable” that companies routinely deny coverage and company “bureaucrats like me” know they will be fired if they OK a procedure.

“The health insurance industry is pulling out all the stops to kill meaningful reform. Their main objective is to kill the crucial public insurance option and to force all of us to buy overpriced policies from them. Their greed knows no bounds. We must not let them win,” he said.

While the anti-reformers yelled about not wanting to pay for others health care and long lines, Karen Ertl, and her husband Richard, of Park Forest, Ill., stood calmly at the front of the rally. Proudly wearing her work ID from the Railroad Retirement Board, she said she’s not selfish. “I want everyone to have the same kind of benefits I have as a federal employee. The same kind Bob Dole denied that he had.”