Chicago, IL - “We won!” Text messages with those words went out the night of Nov. 3 from the SK Hand Tool strikers to family members and supporters. Reports went right to the fact that the SK Hand Tool workers will have health insurance. There was more than that to celebrate as the workers left the final agreement vote late Nov. 3 to go back to tear down the strike tent on 47th Street. They have been on strike for ten weeks - since Aug. 25.
In category after category, they could point to the truth in the lesson that when you fight back, you win victories. Not only did they win their health insurance coverage, but the workers will have their pensions protected and the ability to buy into family health coverage with the Teamster 743 Health and Welfare Committee’s Blue Cross/Blue Shield plans.
The salary component was more than what was offered to them before the strike. Richard Berg, the Teamster Local 743 president who was the chief negotiator, said, “What they were fighting for was health coverage for themselves but also for all Chicago and all U.S. workers.”
Striker John McHale pointed to one of the key factors they had going for them right from the start when he said, “We had a unanimous vote among the workers to go for the strike.” The overwhelming support this strike got from the labor movement also helped to make them into a national force. Over and over there were examples of labor solidarity, like when their strike was put front and center at this years Chicago Labor Day parade. The Network to Fight for Economic Justice made a commitment to support the strike as one of its first examples of collective actions. As Armando Robles from UE Local 1110 put it, “I waited nine months to see what the next Republic Windows and Doors struggle would be, and it wound up happening just down the street from my own house.”
Other factors always mentioned by workers were that they had Teamsters Local 743 President Richard Berg and folks like Treasurer Gina Alvarez who were down for the true fight. The workers were outraged that the boss failed to give the workers notice that their health insurance was canceled. Another factor that McHale and others have often explained is that they began the strike in the very moments of the national debate on health care. They were able to become the national face of what a loss of health coverage really looks like for workers. As an example of this, the strike became such a powerful force that the politicians like Illinois’ Governor Quinn, Congressman Luis Gutierrez and even the U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis felt the need to weigh in with support for the strike.
Other strategic decisions, such as the informational leafleting in front of Sears stores and the call-in campaign, were successful in getting Sears, a major buyer of SK hand tool products, to pressure company owner Claude Fuger back to the table.
The 24-hour, seven day a week strike changed the lives of many workers. Norma Trinidad, an SK worker for 23 years, said in every speech she gave, “We will always remember how workers and other community activists supported us.” They began the strike with only one of the 70 workers ever having experienced a strike before to becoming a tight crew of people who literally turned steel delivery trucks away with their picket lines, again and again.
The famous navy blue Teamster 743 t-shirt says on the back, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” in many languages. These strikers saw that slogan come to life each day. In the next days and weeks the strikers will begin to sum up and share their stories about how, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s, they became working-class heroes and an inspiration to the whole nation. This week, when they march back together into work at the 47th Street site wearing their Teamster 743 gear, they will say, “Yes we did!”