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S&G Workers Win Victory

by Virginia Beckett |
July 1, 1999
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Plainfield, IL - "This whole fight was about respect," said Al Guzman, one of almost two hundred Service Employee International Union Local 1 members who struck S & G Packaging in Plainfield, an outer Chicago suburb, during May and June. "We fought for respect inside the plant and we fought for respect on the picket line." The 4-week long strike was the high point of a contract campaign that started last October.

Sellouts Gone

Workers at S & G, a retail bag manufacturer mainly owned by multinational paper giant Smurfit-Stone, had been represented by SEIU Local 25 for many years. Like many other Local 25 members, the S & G workers were not pleased with their union. Local 25 officers were removed from office for misuse of dues money and known for poor representation of the members.

According to Mike Torres, "The last contract was a total sellout. We voted to strike three times. The third time, the ballots mysteriously disappeared, and the Local 25 union representative told the company that the contract was ratified!"

In January of 1998, S & G and other Local 25 units were merged into SEIU Local 1. "For the first time, we felt like the union was with us instead of with the company!" said S & G worker, Kathy Williams.

S & G = Stingy & Greedy

As SEIU Local 1 members, the S & G workers were able to build a united and strong contract campaign. They had regular mass meetings and rallies in front of the plant. Members used buttons and stickers to get their point across: "S & G = Stingy & Greedy," "I'm ready to strike." They launched an inside campaign that included an overtime ban. Although not promoted or sanctioned by the union, there were some mysterious disappearances of machine parts from time to time. Local 1 members were encouraged to do their jobs very carefully and take as much extra time as they might need.

The company came into contract negotiations with a bunch of proposed takeaways and a disrespectful attitude. They tried to split off the skilled Maintenance workers at the beginning by offering them a major pay upgrade. But S & G screwed up. They proposed big raises for all the Maintenance guys except one, the Latino who had more seniority than anyone else. These tactics backfired and getting an upgrade for Raymundo became one of the main strike issues!

S & G workers voted a strike authorization and kept up the inside pressure. The company started making some moves at the bargaining table. But it wasn't enough. S & G didn't want to give a decent raise or limit the amount of extreme forced overtime.

"You could be on your way to the time clock to punch out and find a supervisor running behind you to tell you that you had to stay another four hours," said Debbie Miller. "We have to work 12 hour days three to five days a week, plus Saturdays. You can forget having a social life or seeing your family."

Strike!

On April 30th, the S & G workers held a one-shift strike, hoping that it would push the company to come up with a decent contract offer. After two weeks and no change from S & G, the SEIU Local 1 members were forced to go out and stay out. "I liked the strike," said Bounsy Thongsawath, one of the picket captains. "People brought food and helped build a shelter. It was a chance to get to know people, especially from other shifts."

After four weeks, S & G gave in. They came up with an offer that included moves on all the outstanding issues. Members voted to accept the offer. The settlement includes improvements in pension, disability pay, shift premiums, and vacation. S & G agreed to work with Local 1 to come up with systems to limit forced overtime and to provide upgrades for machine operators and printer/adjusters. Members get a dental plan, the right to have input into health insurance changes, training pay, and a 3% raise. Raymundo got his upgrade!

"We know the fight isn't over," says Steve Bill. "We have to keep the pressure up if we want the upgrades and a fair overtime system." Local 1 SEIU members will also have to work hard to enforce the new contract when the bosses violate it.

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