CHICAGO -- "This picket line is really speaking for all the people of Illinois who need decent health care," Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn told striking workers at SK Hand Tools Corporation. "Health care is not a privilege. It's a fundamental right as a human being."
Quinn joined the picket line at this southwest side company whose 70 workers have been on strike since August 24 when they discovered the company had terminated their health care coverage without notice. Teamsters Local 743 represents the workers.
The U.S. National Labor Relations Board has issued an unfair labor practice complaint alleging that the company has bargained illegally by stopping health care coverage without notice.
The 88 year-old company, which produces hand tools for Sears & Roebuck and other retailers, including the Craftsman brand, is attempting to resume limited production with scabs.
The union had been in negotiations for a new contract with the company for many months before the health insurance was canceled. The company is also demanding a pay reduction. The workers currently earn on average $14 per hour and the company wants to cut an additional $4 for the first six months. The workers' wages have been frozen for the last six years.
"Everyone understands to have a decent business you need healthy workers. When they went to the doctor and found their health insurance had been yanked, that's not right," Quinn told the strikers. "We have to have a system of health care in which everybody's in and nobody is left out."
"We're going to win this battle for health care and for this company to live up to its obligations," said Quinn, who on Labor Day joined workers at the Congress Hotel, on strike for six years. He encouraged the SK Hand Tool workers to remain steadfast in their demand and reminded them the "strongest force on earth is when people band together."
"People are hurting and if one gets ill they can be ruined," said Cook County Clerk David Orr, who joined Quinn on the picket line. "This is the heart of the struggle to bring justice and health care to the country."
According to union steward David Biedrzycki, "The owner is trying to make this into a third world country and this into a sweatshop. No one wants to be on strike, but we are doing what we need to do."
Some of the workers had surgery and other medical procedures before they realized they had no insurance. One worker now owes over $20,000 after an operation.
Martha Negron has worked at the company for 14 years as a packager and was also directly affected by the elimination in health care insurance. Negron suffers from asthma and her doctor wanted to send her to the hospital after she had a severe attack.
"I couldn't go because they had cut my insurance and I couldn't afford it. After three visits to the doctor, a chest x-ray and some medicine I got a bill for $800. It's not right," said Negron. "We'll stay out as long as necessary to get our health care."
"I've never been treated like this," said Darryl Hall, a 30-year employee, lead man in the tool packaging department and union steward. "People have been working here all their lives and the company has taken their health care. We'll stick together until they come around."
jbachtell @ rednet.org