Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Monday July 28th, 2014, 3:19pm

Union Workers At Skokie Moving Company Strike Over Sluggish Contract Talks (VIDEO)

More than 60 workers at a moving and storage company in Skokie walked off the job Monday as part of an open-ended strike in protest of the firm's slow contract talks with their union.

Workers at Golan's Moving and Storage have been waiting for their first labor contract since winning union representation by Teamsters Local 705 in December. The union represents a core group of about 70 workers at Golan's, plus many temporary employees on 90-day work visas, said Teamsters Local 705 union representative Richard DeVries.

The first contract negotiation session between the union and employer was held in February. But since then, the company has allegedly canceled at least seven bargaining sessions, DeVries said.

For the past three weeks, company and union officials have been working with a federal meditator due to the lack of progress made at the negotiating table. Currently, the two sides have 45 unsettled issues, DeVries said.

The work stoppage at Golan's, located in Skokie at 3600 Jarvis Ave., could continue if the company fails to take part in serious contract negotiations with the union, DeVries said. The federal mediator is planning a bargaining session for Tuesday, he added.

Teamsters Local 705 recently filed "unfair labor practice" charges with the National Labor Relations Board against Golan's, claiming the moving firm has not bargained in good faith with the union.

"What we believe is taking place is that the company would like to engage in surface bargaining until the level of frustration is such that folks just abandon the union and move on to other jobs, or until they ultimately attempt to decertify the union," DeVries said. "Surface bargaining is when you pretend to bargain. You make offers that you know are offers that will be rejected."

The company, DeVries said, is allegedly participating in "surface bargaining" over paid vacation time, which is not currently offered to employees. 

Under the company's five-year contract proposal, only the employees who have worked a full year and at least 1,500 hours annually would be eligible for paid vacation time, DeVries said. 

"The reason this is surface bargaining is all they need to do is look at the annual records, and they know it is extremely difficult to get 1,500 hours, because this is a seasonal industry," he said, explaining that fewer people need moving services in the winter than in the spring and summer.

"It's not unusual that the individuals here have a solid eight or nine months of work, but they don't have 12 months worth of work," DeVries added. "It would take 12 months worth of solid work to get those 1,500 hours. So this becomes a surface bargaining kind of activity to say, 'We're prepared to give you vacation that you will never qualify for.'"

Golan's officials declined to comment for this story. 

In addition to paid vacation days, other contract sticking points involve wage bumps, paid holidays, health care coverage and retirement benefits, to name a few. 

Juan Oropez, who has worked at Golan's for about a year, said the striking employees have a physically demanding job and need health care benefits. 

There are "people who get hurt on the job here," he said. "This is not an easy job."

DeVries said the union has put forward a health care plan. The company, meanwhile, has proposed providing health care to its workers when the Affordable Care Act employer mandate takes effect in 2015, according to the union.

"Under the 2015 (ACA employer mandate), they have no obligation, because (it applies to) employers with greater than 100 [full-time] employees," he noted. "By flooding in the number of employees who are on 90-day visas, and keeping everyone down to 30 hours, they'll never have an Affordable Care Act obligation for health care."

Regarding wages, DeVries said Golan's five-year contract proposal includes increases that are less than cost-of-living raises.

"We need [wages] to be modestly better than the cost of living," he said.

Additionally, the two sides have not reached an agreement on matters involving worker seniority. The company often ignores the seniority of workers when determining who will perform an available job, according to the union.

"Many of our long-term employees are not being worked," DeVries said. "Instead, they are using students [from other countries] on 90-day visas when the long-term employees are sitting home."

An alleged problem of wage theft at Golan's, including unauthorized paycheck deductions, was at least one reason the employees organized to form a union last year with the help of the workers' rights group Arise Chicago. The Golan's workers voted by a margin of six to one to form a union in December. Since winning union recognition, workers said instances of wage theft at the company have stopped.

Now, the workers are demanding that their employer "sit down, negotiate and come up with a good contract," said Jorge Mujica, Arise Chicago's strategic campaigns organizer.

Here's more from Mujica, Oropez and another worker Augusto Rufasto:

The Golan's workers have won some victories following union representation, including a $1.50 pay bump for all employees and overtime pay for those who work more than 40 hours per week, DeVries said. The company also agreed to put in place additional safety regulations.

Onesimo Pena, a Golan's worker of 12 years, said he now earns $14 an hour as a company foreman thanks to the $1.50 an hour pay increase. Still, Pena said his employer falls short when it comes to worker benefits. 

"Nobody has insurance," he said. "This is not fair."

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