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SCI And Locked Out Chicago Funeral Directors Heading Back To Bargaining Table

September 15, 2013

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SCI And Locked Out Chicago Funeral Directors Heading Back To Bargaining Table

It’s a battle between working stiffs and a billion-dollar corporation trying to take away their hard-earned benefits.

Or it’s a fight between greedy union members with unrealistic expectations and a company that’s trying to make a profit for stockholders.

“We’re just taking a stand because at some point you have to fight for what’s right,” said Karen Hannah, 44, an Evergreen Park resident and mother of three who is a funeral director at Blake Lamb Funeral Home, 4727 W. 103rd St., Oak Lawn.

Funeral directors and drivers at 16 funeral homes in the Chicago area went on strike July 2 during a dispute with Service Corporation International, which is headquartered in Houston.

Last month, a spokesman for Teamsters Local 727, which represents the funeral directors, said employees offered to return to work unconditionally. That’s when the strike turned into a lockout.

Other Southland funeral homes impacted by the labor dispute include Kenny Brothers in Evergreen Park, Hennessy-Nowak in Calumet City, Chapel Hill Garden South in Oak Lawn and Ridge Funeral Home in Chicago’s Garfield Ridge community. All of them, including Blake Lamb, are open and continue to operate.

SCI contends that a “significant number of the funeral directors” earn more than $100,000 a year and have enjoyed benefits that few others in the American labor force have these days, such as fully paid health insurance and a pension.

Those two benefits are among the key elements in the dispute, with SCI demanding that employees switch from the pension system to a 401(k) retirement account that will have an employer match of up to 4 percent of an employee’s salary. The company also wants the employees to pick up a share of their health insurance cost.

“What they don’t tell you is many of us have been working without a raise for three years, some for as many as six years,” said Walter “Pat” Quinlan, who lives in Oak Lawn and has been with Blake Lamb for 24 years. “They say they’re offering a 9 percent raise over the next two years, but 4 percent of that would go into our 401(k) under their plan and we would have to pay for our health insurance. In addition, they want to break our seniority rules.

“They claim there are a significant number of people making $100,000, but that’s not true,” Quinlan said. “Very few funeral directors here make that much money. We make an average of about $25 an hour, and some of us may earn as much as $35 an hour and if you put in enough overtime, yeah, maybe you can break $100,000.

“But other funeral home directors in the area are making more money. We just want to make a competitive wage.”

I told the folks manning the picket line Wednesday outside Blake Lamb that my guess was that most people wouldn’t have much sympathy for their plight.

A lot of people have lost their jobs over the past five years. Many of the unemployed who have found work are now being paid about half of what they used to earn.

And then there’s the funeral director thing. Other than used-car salesmen and newspaper reporters, I’m not sure there’s a group held in greater disdain by the general public.

Quinlan and others who were on the line quickly tell me that SCI is one of the reasons for the public’s attitude toward their industry.

“We’re forced to charge $3,000 more than other funeral homes in the area right off the bat,” he said. “That’s the corporate directive. And regardless of a person’s ability to pay, they demand full payment up front. They claim to be concerned about people in the community, but their main concern is the bottom line.”

The Teamsters claim (and financial reports bear them out) that SCI has posted a profit in each quarter for the last five years.

“This is not a company facing financial problems,” Quinlan said. “They’re making money. Profits are up.”

As for the health insurance dispute, the union members claim that their current plan is cheaper and offers better coverage than the one SCI is offering.

The funeral directors expressed a belief that if they give in to the corporation’s demands, there will be more concessions sought down the road.

Funeral director Vincent Giff, who like all the others who were on the line is also an embalmer, said he understands that he has a good job.

“We all know how lucky we are, but we took these jobs with certain expectations of benefits,” Giff, 53, who lives in Oak Lawn, said. “Those are the reasons we took these jobs to begin with.”

Contrary to my cynical view about the public’s perception of funeral directors and unions, those on the picket line said they’ve heard mostly support from neighbors and community residents.

They point to a letter signed by 51 clergymen, expressing their support for the union, and another by U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-3rd). Lipinski’s letter to SCI says the funeral directors and drivers “seek nothing more than parity with other Chicago-area funeral employees and the benefits they deserve.”

“On behalf of the community I serve, I once again urge you to come back to the table ready and willing to engage in meaningful negotiations with the union.”

Another bargaining session is scheduled for Sept. 17.

It’s almost always difficult to decide who is right and who is wrong in these sort of labor disputes. A lot depends on what your beliefs are about a working wage and employee benefits versus an employer’s responsibility to generate profits and produce dividends for stockholders.

But there are fewer and fewer jobs in this country that allow people to raise a family, pay for college tuition and have enough money for a comfortable retirement.

The middle class for decades has driven the national economy with its ability to spend money without fearing the future.

Perhaps that wasn’t the wisest personal policy, but it created the greatest economic growth in world history.

Maybe that’s coming to an end. Maybe it is inevitable.

It is certainly worrisome.