Contract dispute, strike vote challenge community image of Madison-based CUNA Mutual

By: - April 25, 2023 6:30 am
Joe Evica, CUNA mutual chief steward

Union chief steward at CUNA Mutual, Joe Evica, speaks in March to the Dane County Board of Supervisors about the ongoing labor dispute at the company. (Screenshot | YouTube)

Union employees at the Madison firm that provides investment products and other services to credit unions across the country vowed Monday to walk out after more than a year of attempts to negotiate a new labor contract.

At a rally Monday evening held at the Madison Labor Temple, union leaders said 92% of the union members at CUNA Mutual Group have authorized a strike if they don’t see a change in the company’s bargaining stance. The union, Office and Professional Employees Local 39, has not announced a strike deadline.

“We’ve made reasonable proposals, but CUNA Mutual has denied them to us every step of the way,” Joe Evica, the chief union steward, said at Monday night’s rally. Evica was fired April 4 on what the union’s lawyer, Lester Pines, called “trumped up charges” aimed at intimidating union members.

In a statement that CUNA Mutual spokesperson Barclay Pollak issued late Monday afternoon before the rally, the company said it intends to reach an agreement with the union and that it is seeking “a fair and market-competitive agreement that meets the needs of our employees, our customers and company.” 

The statement said CUNA Mutual has made unspecified plans “to ensure uninterrupted service” in the event of a strike.

Stating that the union “has been part of our history and will be part of our future,” the statement said CUNA Mutual was bargaining in good faith and that it “awaits a counterproposal” to a proposal it sent the union Feb. 16.

But union leaders said at Monday’s rally that the two sides have been at loggerheads, with the company refusing to move off of its positions and rejecting the union’s proposals out of hand with no sign of compromise. The last face-to-face meeting took place in January.

Evica was accused of having “disclosed company information,” said Kathryn Bartlett-Mulvihill, president and business manager of Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 39. The union represents about 450 CUNA Mutual employees. The firing was simply “an act of retaliation against Joe for his union activity,” she said.

Contract talks began in February 2022. The disputed issues range widely. Bartlett-Mulvihill told the rally that one long-running problem has been outsourcing work traditionally done by union-represented employees, giving it instead to independent contractors with no union rights and no long-term job security. Over the last two decades that has stripped more than 1,200 jobs from union representation, she said.

The union has also sought to preserve remote work provisions that began during the COVID-19 pandemic and have helped many members attain greater work-life balance, Bartlett-Mulvihill said. 

Health coverage, a company proposal to eliminate the union members’ traditional defined-benefit pension plan and wages are also at issue, Evica said, including the union’s demand for a pay equity review for unionized employees that would identify discrepancies affecting women and people of color on the staff. 

The union has filed four unfair labor practice charges to date with the National Labor Relations Board, including over Evica’s firing, and speakers emphasized that a strike would be over unfair labor practices. That distinction is important because under U.S. labor law, unfair labor practice strikers have stronger rights than purely economic strikers, according to the NLRB — including protection from being permanently replaced.

“CUNA Mutual for years has stonewalled the union,” said Pines, the union’s lawyer, “while it has surreptitiously and deliberately violated the contract and added contractors into the work which is union work.”

The company has hired two national law firms, Jackson Lewis and Ogletree Deakins, known for their anti-union work, Pines said. “If you’re a good corporate citizen and you love Madison and you want to have a good relationship with your workers, you don’t bring in the biggest union-busting law firms in the country.”

The dispute comes as CUNA Mutual is rebranding its business, adopting the name of “TruStage.” The company’s primary customers are credit unions for which it provides insurance services and financial and investment products for credit union members. 

Several speakers mocked the name change at Monday night’s rally. A banner behind the speakers bore the words “TruStage Can’t Be Trusted.”

In March, the Dane County Board and the Madison city council both passed resolutions urging CUNA Mutual to resume bargaining. Monday night, politicians and community activists voiced support for the union and contrasted the company’s labor relations with its positive community image.

“I’ve always thought of CUNA Mutual as a good partner in our community,” said State Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison). “However, that is negated when they refuse to sit down and support their own workforce.”

Dane Varese, an aide to U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Town of Vermont), read a letter that Pocan sent the company’s CEO, Robert Trunzo, on Friday. 

“As both a union member and a business owner, I know that contract negotiations can only result in a successful outcome for all parties when conducted fairly,” Pocan wrote.

The letter noted that Evica had been fired “shortly after” he and other union members met with Pocan and other elected officials in March. “I sincerely hope that this timing was coincidental, and not indicative of potentially improper retaliation for federally protected concerted activity under the National Labor Relations Act,” Pocan wrote.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.