What Solidarity Can Achieve is not a Pipe Dream

by Richard Negri

Late last week the workers at Express Scripts, Inc ratified a new agreement. The settlement came after months and months of hardcore fighting, which included threats of the company to close own both of its Bensalem, Pa facilities, ultimately sacking 1,000 workers.

The workers, represented by SEIU Healthcare Pennsylvania waged an all out war against the company. Aside from rallies in the street, they reached out to the company’s consumers, the press, the community and labor unions around the country. The level of solidarity these workers received was overwhelming, but more importantly, it worked.

One union president, who found out I’d been working this campaign by way of Facebook and YouTube posts, called me directly. The union leader was so furious over this issue that her union promised to pull nearly 8,000 members from the ESI consumer list if they “didn’t get their shit together.” That union wasn’t alone in sentiment or promise. Labor all came together to make similar threats, posted the news (which was changing minute by minute) to their Internet presence, did letter-sending, signing petitions and eventually began donating money to the Fight Back Fund. The solidarity came from AFL-CIO member unions and Change-To-Win unions, labor fought together on this, and it was remarkable.

Until very late last week, we were all sure that the workers would lose their jobs the day after their contract expired, 12/15, and two weeks before Christmas. The power of the union and the solidarity the union received from others changed that. An agreement was made.

The 2-year agreement approved:

• Rescinds the company’s decision to close the Street Road facility and maintains approximately 400 jobs there, with a commitment to keep the facility open over the life of the agreement.

• Maintains affordable, family health care in the workers’ current health insurance plan.

• Reinstates, with back pay, the three workers who were suspended for activity in support of the fight to save these jobs.

• Provides a substantial severance package for workers being laid off – including a lump sum payment of $10,000 plus an additional week of pay for every year of service up to 10 weeks. In addition, workers will receive 5 months of employer-paid health care benefits or an additional $5,000 in severance pay, at employees’ option. For an employee earning $12 per hour, the severance package is the equivalent of up to 10 months and 1 week of full pay.

• Gives recall rights for laid off workers if the facility reopens in the future.

“This has been a very difficult challenge. I am saddened that many people who helped build this company are being laid off. But by sticking together we saved 400 good jobs for this community and won an excellent severance package for laid off workers that most non-union workers could only dream about,” said Rickie Stemley, a Pharmacy Tech at the Marshall Lane facility.

Express Scripts, Inc. is the second largest pharmacy benefits company in existence. They are hugely profitable and, when they said they needed the workers to take $8.8 million in concessions, it was because the company “needed to maintain profitability.” In an interesting turn of facts, the CEO of the company raked in more than $10 million in 2009 alone — he could have handled the concessions needed/ wanted and still remain a millionaire a few times over.  Clearly this was all about greed. Clearly this was all about busting the union.

At one point the campaign asked how many more ESI’s are we going to allow to blame the recession for cutting good union jobs? The fight was fierce — and though there is a mixed bag of reactions to the final settlement — it is fantastic the workers were able to hold on to 400 jobs, and gain excellent severance packages for the workers that will be let go. None of this would have happened if these workers didn’t stand united and strong through this roller coaster campaign. The workers took a very local issue national, and the payoff was 10-fold.

If there is one thing that we can learn from this fight it is this: We can win good fights if we have the power of labor coming together. While ESI has more money than all of us combined, we have more people, voices and strength than their money could buy. We shouldn’t let that go lightly as we move on to the next fight.

Richard Negri works for SEIU, but this was written in his personal capacity and originally appeared on the Union Review website.

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