10-Week Chicago Teamsters Strike Wins Back Health Care

When SK Hand Tools in Chicago unilaterally dropped health insurance and tried to strip pensions and cut pay, workers headed to picket lines. Now they're returning to work after 10 weeks on strike, having saved their health care and pensions. Photo: Sara Jones.

While Congress and health care executives played political volleyball with health care reform, workers at SK Hand Tools in Chicago took matters into their own hands.

When their employer unilaterally dropped health insurance and tried to strip pensions and cut pay, 70 members of Teamsters Local 743 struck on August 25.

Now they’re returning to their production lines, where they make wrenches and other tools for Sears, having saved their health care and pensions. They took big pay cuts, but not as deep as what management had demanded: dropping pay from an average $14 to just above Illinois’s minimum wage, $8 an hour.

SKHandToolsStrikeWhen SK Hand Tools in Chicago unilaterally dropped health insurance and tried to strip pensions and cut pay, workers headed to picket lines. Now they're returning to work after 10 weeks on strike, having saved their health care and pensions. Photo: Sara Jones.

Although management dumped health care in early May, workers weren’t told. Many had to find out by word of mouth from other workers, or were clued in when hit with surprising medical bills. Workers said managers later told them they’d been too busy to inform employees. Since May, many workers have had to forgo needed medical care or are now amassing debt.

Richard Berg, president of the local, said SK wanted to “slam down the standard of living of these people forever.”

The workers had another plan in mind, taking a unanimous vote to strike and standing firm for more than two months. It was the unit’s first strike.

The settlement secures workers’ individual health care, and allows them to access pensions and family health care through the Teamsters’ multi-employer trust fund. Steward and strike co-captain Dave Biedrzycki said many workers had over 30 years in and were ready to retire, making the pensions a priority.

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According to Berg, the cost and quality of individual insurance has remained the same as before, although family plans will now be more expensive.

Workers did accept deep wage cuts, 20 percent for some and 30 percent for others, in their new contract. Berg says the union recognized that the company is in financial trouble, but hopes to be in a good place to bargain for better conditions when the company returns to profitability.

Workers at SK Hand Tools were far from lonely in facing the loss of health benefits in the sour economy. According to the Center for American Progress, 2.4 million workers have lost coverage during the recession. Cuts have been most stark in manufacturing, with 733,600 workers losing employer-based coverage between December 2007 and May, when SK Hand Tools quietly stopped paying the bills.

The strike also highlighted a painful distinction in the workforce: While union members won their health care back, non-union workers at the shop did not recover theirs, nor did SK workers in a Machinists local in Ohio.

Biedrzycki said, “We wanted to make sure this didn’t happen to anyone else. We wanted to let other people know—this can happen to you. We really have to thank the unions and organizations that came out to support us. This is something I’ll never forget.”

Berg says that the national health care debate hit home for Local 743 members.

“The workers would look on TV or in the newspaper and only see insurance executives and business people,” he said. “Nobody was speaking for working people. When we struck, workers at SK Hand Tools felt that they had become a voice for working people.”


Enku Ide is a Labor Notes intern.