Photo credit: IUOE
After walking the picket lines for seven weeks, 300 members of the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 voted unanimously to adopt their new contract. Among the contract improvements IUOE members won from their strike are a minimum wage increase of 16% throughout the life of the three year contract, stronger layoff language, stronger seniority language, and 100% employer paid healthcare. The contract victory was achieved through immense struggle and unwavering solidarity between IUOE members, the local labor movement and the broader Chicago community.
On June 7, 300 IUOE members walked off the job to protest unresolved Unfair Labor Practices that the union filed against the three employers it was bargaining with — Lehigh Hanson, Vulcan Materials and Lafarge Holcim. The three companies, who organize themselves into the Chicago Area Aggregate Producers Association, sell sand, gravel and crushed stone that IUOE members produce and work with. These materials are needed for asphalt, concrete and other construction materials. The ULPs that the union filed sought to resolve management’s contract violations and their infringement on union members’ rights, including their right to hold union meetings.
IUOE Local 150 members did not take the decision to strike lightly. According to IUOE Communications Director Ed Maher, “Over the course of the pandemic the attitude of many of these employers changed. It went from partnership to adversarial. These are large global corporations so I don’t know what exactly is behind that, but our members go to work everyday and put in a hard day’s work. They expect to be treated with respect and that the terms of the collective bargaining agreement will be abided by.”
Almost a month in, the strike began to make major impacts in Chicago area construction projects. According to an article published in the Chicago Sun Times on July 4, the walkout was causing disruptions in several construction projects and some were under threat of being canceled.
Instead of deciding to bargain with the union in good faith, the three employers decided to try to break the strike. “They brought in replacement workers right away. Whether it was supervisors or employees of the company that did administrative tasks in the office, they trained them to operate heavy equipment. They also brought in workers from other parts of the country to do our work. They told employees that what we were asking for in negotiations was exorbitant. That they were welcome to come back to work any time and cross the picket line. There was a lot of dishonesty in what our members were told by these companies. Positions we took during negotiations were fabricated and misrepresented,” Maher told Liberation News.
Maher noted that daily communication from IUOE Local 150 was critical to overcoming the employer’s divide and conquer tactics. “The members came to us to ask what was going on and we kept them informed on what was going on on a daily basis. We provided them with concrete information to show them what they were being told by the employer wasn’t true.”
Because of the union’s consistent communication and the member’s clear understanding of what they were fighting for, 78% of IUOE members voted down CAAPA’s initial final offer. “The employers knew what the priorities of these workers were. One of them was to amend contract language that impacted the way member’s benefits were paid on an hourly basis. There was a limit to which hours the employers would pay benefits on and the members wanted to change that language. They gave us a final offer that did not include those changes. That offer was voted down,” Maher explained. “Once it was voted down it was a matter of hours before the companies reached out to talk about figuring this out. Forty-eight hours later, the members approved a Tentative Agreement. After seven weeks of trying to introduce questions into these worker’s minds and trying to split them and they are still voting their offer down, they saw the membership was not in danger of cracking and they got serious.”
Maher highlighted the impact that solidarity from other unions and the Chicago community had in winning the strike. “We were very grateful to other union members in the pits. It’s not just operators. It’s Laborers, Teamsters, and Machinists. When our members went out, the Laborers went out. The Teamsters went out. What we saw was that solidarity works. If half the members crossed the picket lines and went back to work, the strike would not have been successful. But none of our members crossed the picket lines. They understood what they were fighting for. At the end, they were offered less. They said no. And they got what they wanted,” Maher said.
“Every worker needs to realize they have a lot more power than they think. If they stand together and fight together, they can win. You can always do more when you fight together.”