About 70 Mercer Island workers were on strike for more than a month, peacefully picketing and chanting near Island Corporate Center on Southeast 24th Street almost every day since leaving their desks on Aug. 23.
Their bargaining team reached a tentative agreement with on Sept. 22, and 83 percent of the workers voted in favor of it. They returned to work, but allege their employer retaliated against them by illegally firing 10 strikers.
“The dispute continues,” said Suzanne Mode, a business manager for the union.
The company is Welfare and Pension Administration Service (WPAS) and its employees are represented by the Seattle-based Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPIEU) Local 8. They handle pension and health-care benefits for about 250,000 unionized workers in the Puget Sound region.
“WPAS owners make their money from administrating Union Health and Pension Trusts. Shame on them,” Mode stated. “We are continuing to fight this reprehensible anti-union behavior by filing an unfair labor practice charge and grievances. It’s sad that WPAS owners can’t move past the strike and begin the healing process.”
With members from other unions and labor groups, WPAS employees on strike held a “Solidarity Rally” on Sept. 14. They also announced that they have set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses during the strike, to make sure workers don’t have to cross the picket line due to financial hardship.
“The company we work for administers union health insurance plans, retirement, and other union benefit plans,” according to the page. “We are the frontline staff who process incoming contributions, process claims, answer phones, and make sure pension checks go out on time.”
Randy Henson, a WPAS employee and OPEIU member since 1985, said it was difficult to stop serving the company’s clients, who are also union members, knowing that they could be denied services like monthly pension payments, prescriptions and medical treatments if their claims are not processed in a timely manner. But he said that they have been receiving support from local labor groups.
“I have always been proud to work for a company that shared my pro-labor values and one that provided first rate service to our client’s Benefit Plan Participants,” Henson wrote in a Sept. 12 memo to the company. “Part of my training as a new employee was to be instilled with the notion that service is the most important word in our company name.”
He wrote that WPAS is “a great company founded by — and in service to — organized labor.” But he said that the new ownership group doesn’t share those values, and was negotiating in bad faith with the workers.
“And now, determined to outlast us, [the owners] appear willing to sacrifice our company’s commitment to top-rate service to our customers,” Henson wrote.
The union also claims that one of the owners falsely told employees that they could face consequences from the union, or be fired, for crossing the picket line. These charges will be investigated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).
Seattle City Council candidate Teresa Mosqueda, who works for the Washington State Labor Council, was at the rally, and said the workers have her support. A staffer from Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s office was also in attendance.
“You make it possible for working people to live and retire with dignity… for people to have a living wage,” Mosqueda said. “We want you to have the same.”
The union and the WPAS ownership had been negotiating on a new five-year contract for 11 months leading up to the strike. OPEIU members rejected their employer’s last offer on Aug. 16, which they said offered “nothing but takeaways.”
Henson wrote that the owners “claim they need to reduce labor costs due to a ‘competitive business climate.’” The union members say that they are fighting to keep fundamental union standards such as seniority rights, and a cap on medical premium cost share and contributions to their 401k to reestablish their retirement after they agreed to withdraw from their pension last year.
“We understand that concessions are sometimes necessary in bargaining, and we’ve made them in the past, but we believe it’s also important at times to stand up for what is right and fight for what’s fair,” according to the GoFundMe page.
Henson said that the company relocated from 2nd Avenue in Seattle, near the Labor Temple Association, to Mercer Island in March. He said that labor strikes on the Island seem to be rare, but that the community has shown solidarity with the union.
Henson said the workers have been pleasantly surprised by the level of support in the Mercer Island community.
“Every little horn honk or thumbs up means the world to us,” he said.