Union, TruStage remain embroiled in lingering contract dispute

By: - August 1, 2023 6:45 am

OPEIU Local 39 member Bryan Barber talks to union supporters about the contract talks at TruStage in Madison at a union rally outside the state Capitol on Saturday. (Screenshot | YouTube)

Two months after ending a 17-day walkout, union employees at a Madison financial services business complain of little progress in contract talks that they say have dragged on, exacerbated by infrequent negotiation sessions.

The contract talks at TruStage Financial Group — formerly CUNA Mutual Group — have resolved a few issues, most of which the union’s chief steward described in an interview Monday as “peripheral,” while the company and Office & Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 39 remain far apart on the most critical provisions.

“The things that [union] members have identified as priorities — the pension, wages, health care, all of those things — they haven’t moved at all,” the chief steward, Joe Evica, told the Wisconsin Examiner. 

The union represents about 450 employees at the company. “They’re extremely frustrated with the slowness of negotiations,” he said.

Recently, Evica said, a federal mediator offered six calendar dates for further negotiation sessions. The union said it was available for all six, while TruStage management “responded by only offering three days of availability out of the six,” he said. 

Evica called the company response “just a very common stalling tactic essentially to demoralize members.”

Asked Monday for a phone interview or an email reply, Barclay Pollak, TruStage media and reputation consultant, responded to written questions. Pollak asserted that that the company’s “wage increases for represented employees have outpaced inflation, including in our most recent proposal.” 

Conflicting accounts of bargaining

The company and the union have given sharply contrasting descriptions of the history of negotiations in the last year. 

The union has described an ongoing pattern of little to no movement on the part of TruStage management in response to the union’s contract proposals and accused management of agreeing to meet only infrequently. 

The TruStage statement on Monday asserted, “For more than a year, we have offered numerous proposals and bargaining opportunities. These overtures were met with silence from the union.” 

While union leaders over the last several months have described repeated requests to meet with the company that have been rebuffed, the TruStage statement Monday said, “Only in recent weeks have they [the union] agreed to come to the bargaining table.”

The TruStage statement did not offer a direct answer to the question why the company was unable to meet more often than the three meetings it accepted of the six most recently offered by the federal mediator.

Evica said that one high-priority concession that the union got from TruStage was an agreement by the company to continue allowing remote work and to not call back workers to the office for “arbitrary or capricious” reasons. 

That provision was negotiated during the union’s two-week strike that ran from May 19 until June 5 and led the union to suspend the walkout in anticipation of a shift in the company’s stance at the bargaining table — one that Evica said did not materialize.

Capitol rally

On Saturday, the union staged a protest with a march around the state Capitol and speeches by union members as well as supportive politicians, including U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan and state Sen. Melissa Agard, both Democrats. 

The TruStage labor conflict has been grinding on for more than a year, since negotiations on a new contract began in February 2022.

Bryan Barber, a union bargaining team member, said at the rally that when talks began, many expected an easy negotiation because of the company’s strong financial position.

“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, firing our chief steward, all kinds of behaviors that [are] unbecoming of a company that’s been considered a pillar of our community for so long,” Barber said. 

Those actions strengthened union members’ resolve, he added. “As the company acted with more and more insensitivity, we became more active and empowered.”

Some of the issues that the union has put at the forefront of its campaign have been sore points for workers going far back before the current talks. Those revolve around what the union contends is a deliberate shift of work from union-represented employees to contract workers without the union’s protection.

There has been “no progress” on that front, Evica said Monday. “They are currently using hundreds of contractors to perform bargaining unit work in violation of the collective bargaining agreement.”

Union goes to NLRB

The use of hundreds of outside contractors to fill jobs that the union contends should be performed by union-represented employees is the subject of an unfair labor practice charge that OPEIU has filed with the National Labor Relations Board. 

Altogether the union has nine open cases before the NLRB in charges that have been filed from February to early June, all stemming from the contract negotiations. Another of those pending cases involves the firing of Evica in April.

The oldest pending charge that the union has made with the labor board alleged retaliation against union members, refusal to bargain and bad-faith bargaining as well as changes in employment terms and conditions and making unilateral changes to the contract.

According to the union, the NLRB officials told both the company and the union in mid-July agency has “found merit” in the union’s charge against the company. NLRB staff instructed both sides to work out a settlement and for the company to turn over requested information to the union. 

Responding to a question about that NLRB case, Pollak, the TruStage spokesperson, said in the written statement:  “We are cooperating with the NLRB and will continue to do so. We have never and will never work against our employees or negotiate in a way that doesn’t represent TruStage’s values.”

Evica said that the TruStage management has provided copies of communications between the company’s human resources department and employees over bonuses approved or denied over the last year and a half as contract bargaining was underway. He said that some of the information is missing, however, “so we plan to continue to work with the company and the NLRB in order to make sure that they get that information to us.”

While TruStage employees are still working, union leaders are considering next steps.

“It is potential that this unit will go out on strike again,” said Local 39 President Kathryn Bartlett-Mulvihill at Saturday’s rally. 

In the meantime, Evica said Monday, the union is campaigning across the country for union workers to bring their campaign to the attention of credit unions, which are the traditional market for the financial products that TruStage provides. 

Some Local 39 members have gone to credit unions where they do their banking and said “that they would not be utilizing any TruStage products or services within that credit union until TruStage reaches a fair agreement with their workforce,” Evica said.

The union also is appealing to the American Federation of Teachers for support, counting on the support of teachers and teachers’ credit unions and telling them “exactly what’s going on with TruStage, since they all utilize their products and services,” he added. 

“We’re going to continue to raise that issue because credit unions are supposed to represent providing products, resources and services to people who are otherwise not served well by banks and other kinds of financial institutions,” Evica said. “And TruStage is acting exactly like those corporate financial institutions rather than the kind of institution that’s meant to support everyday people.”


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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.