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Friday, February 23, 2024

Workers at Madison-based insurance company TruStage held a rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol building on July 29 in protest of the company’s alleged unfair labor practices and stalled contract negotiations. 

Madison union rallies for labor rights following 500 days of negotiations

Workers at Madison-based insurance company TruStage held a rally to protest the company’s alleged unfair labor practices.

Workers at Madison-based insurance company TruStage held a rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol building on July 29 in protest of the company’s alleged unfair labor practices and stalled contract negotiations. 

TruStage — formerly known as CUNA Mutual Group — has been negotiating a new contract with the Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 39 (OPEIU Local 39), which represents 450 TruStage employees. 

Negotiations began in April 2022. OPEIU Local 39 representatives said during the rally that negotiations stalled despite union members going on strike earlier this year.

Union President Kathryn Bartlett-Mulvehill told rallygoers the union’s success hinges on community support. 

“We need these strikes to be successful. We need the community to turn out when those employees are on strike,” Bartlett-Mulvehill said. “If they’re in pain, we all suffer as a community.” 

OPEIU Local 39 conducted a three-week unfair labor strike late last spring outside TruStage’s office and filed unfair labor practice charges after negotiations beginning in 2022 failed. 

TruStage began refusing to bargain with the union in January of 2023 and committed “multiple unfair labor practices” that union leaders filed with the National Labor Relations Board, OPEIU Local 39 Chief Steward Joe Evica said in an email to The Daily Cardinal, noting that over 90% of the union members voted in favor of authorizing the strike. 

TruStage said in a statement the company has been negotiating with the union in good faith.

“From the start of the bargaining process, TruStage has negotiated with our employees’ best interests in mind,” the company said. “We want our employees to have a fair and market-competitive contract. We intend to continue working with the union to complete a fair deal on behalf of the employees they represent.”

The rally on July 29 galvanized a large group of union advocates, including TruStage employees and elected officials. State Senate Minority Leader Melissa Agard, D-Madison, and U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., lent their support, denouncing any situation where big corporations may have harnessed their authority to exploit workers.

“It is not the case that all corporations in Wisconsin are lifting up and taking care of the people who are creating their profits,” Agard said.

“When you look across the board, public support is about as high as it’s been in 50 years for workers having a voice in their workplace,” Pocan said, referencing recent negotiations between UPS and the Teamsters representing UPS workers. “All companies should look at their employees as their single best asset.”

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July protest follows over 500 days of negotiations

Earlier this year, OPEIU Local 39 filed unfair labor practice charges against TruStage claiming the company illegally withheld information the union requested about TruStage's decisions related to the rewarding or denial of bonuses for unionized employees. 

After the union’s contract with TruStage expired in February 2022, TruStage and the union started negotiating a new contract. TruStage claims union representatives refused to communicate, the Cap Times reported in July. At the rally, TruStage employees told their side of the story. 

TruStage IT analyst and member of the contract-action team Vernon Winters said despite the company’s claims to support financial freedom, it has been unwilling to raise workers’ wages to match inflation. 

“If you visit the TruStage website, you will read the following: ‘We’re on a mission to make a brighter financial future accessible to everyone,’” Winters said. “For TruStage workers whose wages are not keeping pace with inflation, how will their futures look?”

In July, the National Labor Relations Board ruled the union’s unfair labor charges had merit and allowed them to move forward. Chief Steward Joe Evica said over 500 days of attempted negotiations led the union to file charges, lead a strike and ultimately hold the weekend rally. 

“The strike was the culmination of TruStage’s illegal actions during bargaining, including retaliation against union leaders, refusal to turn over information, bargaining in bad faith, violating the collective bargaining agreement and other illegal activity,” Evica said in an email. 

But earlier this month, a judge at the NLRB dismissed OPEIU Local 39’s charges on the basis that TruStage has since provided the information that it allegedly previously withheld. The union may appeal the dismissal before Aug. 17.

Bryan Barber, a member of the bargaining committee at TruStage highlighted the persistence of employees. 

“I don’t think anyone imagined that this would drag on for almost 500 days and that the company would resort to retaliating against employees,” Barber said. “It’s inspiring to see how we’ve gone through a transformative change where we started out somewhat passive and complacent, and as the company acted with more and more insensitivity, we became more active and empowered.” 

Bartlett-Mulvehill closed the rally, affirming the union will continue using their voices to attain a fair contract. 

“These employees here want a deal, a fair and equitable deal,” Bartlett-Mulvehill said. “What we say to management is, ‘let's get a fair and equitable deal that secures our future, not just for today, but forever.’”

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