Arturo Sanchez is accustomed to working outside in all kinds of weather, making concrete products at Cretex Companies. He didn’t mind the hard work, he said, because he was earning a decent living and putting money into a pension plan for the day he would retire.
Now Cretex wants to take that money and convert the workers’ secure, union-based pension plan into a 401(k) worth much less. That prompted Sanchez and some 40 other members of Local 563 of the Laborers International Union of North America to walk off the job seven weeks ago.
On Tuesday, hundreds of people – including top lawmakers and LIUNA President Terence O’Sullivan – gathered outside the Cretex plant to show support for the workers and their fight for retirement security.
“These workers did the right thing – they put money away for their retirement out of their raises,” said Tim Mackey, business manager for Local 563. “We’re not going to let them [Cretex] steal our money.”
The crowd included hundreds wearing bright orange LIUNA t-shirts and members of other unions sporting their colors. On a nearby rail line, members of the United Transportation Union blew their horns in solidarity as they passed.
Negotiations broke down June 18, when Cretex failed to budge from its demand to eliminate pension contributions and slash the workers’ retirement package by roughly 80 percent.
Workers like Sanchez, who have less than five years of seniority, would lose all the money they had put into their retirement. Older workers, who had planned to retire from the physically taxing work, would be forced to stay on the job longer under the reduced benefit, the union said.
Support from top lawmakers
The top leaders at the Minnesota Legislature addressed the crowd and urged Cretex to treat the workers fairly. They noted that the company has been doing well financially and benefitted from the hard work of its employees.
“Corporations and the wealthy are getting richer and the middle class is stagnant,” said House Speaker Paul Thisssen, DFL-Minneapolis. “We’re going to stand with you through all of this . . .”
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, issued a stern warning: “My message to the executives at Cretex is ‘We are not turning back the clock on workers’ safety, on workers’ benefits – not now, not ever!”
O’Sullivan said this fight to protect retirement security is being watched closely. “The outcome of this strike, this fight in Minnesota, will have an impact across the country,” he said. “Losing is not an option. We’re going to stay strong.”
The union is urging people to call Cretex CEO Lynn Schuler at 763-441-2121 “to let him know that Minnesota workers deserve better from a Minnesota-based company.”
The union also is raising funds to support the strikers. O’Sullivan presented the local with a $25,000 check.
Alex Ocampo said he appreciated the support and the contributions will come in handy in the next few weeks as he gets his son and daughter ready for school. Most of all, he hopes the company decides to return to the bargaining table with a proposal that shows it values the work performed by him and his co-workers.
“It hurts,” Ocampo said of the company’s actions that forced a strike. “I don’t see a reason why they should do this.”