President's Corner

 

April 2020 Rising to the Challenge

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President’s Corner

Brothers and Sisters,

When we think we’ve got everything figured out, God has a way of humbling us. For the past decade, we’ve dealt with about every type of challenge imaginable and used our experience to plan for the future. Bad markets, fiscal cliffs, government shutdowns and so many other things have come along and made us more resilient and prepared. And then we get a pandemic.

Don’t ever forget, though, that we have seen tough times before. Local 150 has made it through a Great Depression, two World Wars, many recessions, a total financial collapse, and every challenge in between, and we always come out stronger. Local 150 has taken punches since we got our charter, but nothing’s ever kept us down, and a pandemic sure won’t be the thing.

While many things have changed over the past month, one thing that has not changed is our absolute motivation to work hard and make progress for you. Change happens quickly, but I want to give you a current rundown of all the proactive things that Local 150 is doing to get members through this uncertain period with as little impact as possible.

For starters, it is important to understand that Executive Orders issued by the Governors of Illinois and Indiana recognize both our staff and our members as “essential workers,” which is critically important for two reasons. First, members need to have an opportunity to continue to earn a paycheck. In our conversations with agencies like the Illinois Tollway and Illinois Department of Transportation, we have lobbied hard and convinced them to continue to let projects and even ramp up construction in many cases because it has such limited public impact. Second, our union and benefit staff have to be able to continue to provide service to members, whether that member is working or not.

We have worked hard to keep the essential functions of the union and benefit offices unchanged as the COVID-19 pandemic has emerged. Regardless of the restrictions that have been placed on many other businesses, we have an obligation to continue to dispatch members to work because construction work has not been impaired. Dispatch is one of the most critical functions, and we have identified key employees and planned contingencies to keep our Dispatch offices working.

Especially during a public health crisis, members need to get medical care, and we have an obligation to handle those claims and ensure that members get the care they need and that it is paid as necessary. Likewise, many retirees still receive physical pension checks in the mail, and those checks have to go out. For members of the Midwest Coalition of Labor Credit Union, we have to ensure that funds are accessible. Finally, our Operators’ Health Center (OHC) provides primary care for many members and serves an important role during a time like this, so we have to ensure that we can provide the best care possible.

While we are working hard every day to maintain these services for members, public health recommendations and mandates from both state and federal government agencies have changed the way that we operate on a day-to-day basis.

As many of you learned in mid-March, we were required to close our Training Center when Governor Pritzker closed all schools in Illinois and banned gatherings of more than 50 people. It was closed on short notice and during the closure, cleaning crews will be working to sanitize the entire facility and all of our equipment. We will reopen it as soon as health agencies confirm that we can do so safely and legally.

At the same time, in accordance with the ban on large gatherings and with the advice of the International Union, we have suspended monthly union meetings until further notice. Keeping crowds of members out of the halls is a priority in keeping members and staff healthy. We have suspended sales of merchandise in the halls until further notice in an effort to reduce traffic in the halls.

We encourage members to pay dues online at www.my150.com. We are also asking members to call the hall if they have a question for their business agents. Anyone with questions can be connected over the phone to a business agent to answer their question or handle their issue on the job. To be clear, we are asking members not to come into the hall for any reason. Cutting down foot traffic in the hall is necessary for the safety of the staff as well as the safety of the members who do come in.

I’d also like to let you all know that for the time being, our Organizing Department is being shifted into the field to assist business agents with servicing members on the job. The work so many of you are doing right now is nothing short of heroic, and these additional resources will go a long way to ensure that your safety is being protected at work.

The safety of the Operators’ Health Center must be protected during this time. Because of the limited supply of protective gear that we have for the staff, we’ve begun a system of triage to keep both the staff and all their patients safe. We have begun to utilize virtual visits over video or telephone for all patients, and when individuals require more urgent care, physical visits at the Operators’ Health Center will be scheduled. If you need care from the OHC, please call the phone numbers for both the Countryside and Merrillville facilities that appear on page 2 of the Engineer.

Extra caution with regard to physical contact is not the only necessity. We have also had to exercise caution with regard to our Pension Fund. As members were notified last month, the Pension Fund trustees unanimously agreed to postpone the full accrual of pension contributions by one year until April 1, 2021. This decision was made as the calamitous fall of the markets coincided with the end of our Pension Fund’s fiscal year, threatening to put our Pension Fund into the “Red Zone” without preventive measures. It is our hope that delaying this move will be the only thing we have to do, and if we manage to stay in the “Yellow” or “Green Zone,” we will have spared ourselves the need to make any additional cuts.

I will report in the next edition of this column what the status of the Pension Fund is at the end of this Fiscal Year. As I write this a week before the end of March, it is hard to foresee a situation where we recover the significant losses we’ve taken so far this year. From February 12th to March 23rd, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined by 37 percent. At the Special General Membership Meeting last September, I explained that we stress-tested the benefit enhancement options, but I think you can understand our caution in the face of the stock market losing more than a third of its value in just a few weeks. I said at the time that with the benefit enhancements was bulletproof, not bazooka-proof. Despite this, I want to remind you that if our Pension Fund finds itself in a better place before April 1, 2021, we can enact the benefit enhancement at any time sooner. We have always taken a cautious and prudent approach to protecting the status of our Pension Fund, and we will continue to do so. Postponing the benefit enhancement was not a decision that anyone took lightly, but it is our hope that it will be a difference-making decision in this environment.

Our number one priority in all this is maintaining your safety and that of your families. For that reason, I can’t stress enough the need for members to practice safety guidelines at work. Keep your hands clean, keep your equipment clean, and stay a safe distance away from other workers. When it is break time, have your coffee or lunch in the cab of your machine or out in your truck. Stay out of lunch rooms, job trailers, and common gathering places. We’re working hard to ensure that you can continue to earn a paycheck under these circumstances, but it’s only possible when we are all committed to safety.

I want to just take a moment to reflect on the things that we learned from the Great Recession and how those lessons have put us in a better place today. At that time, residential construction work made up approximately 45 percent of our man-hours, and when that market collapsed, so did our members’ ability to work. We have a diversified work picture today, with far more public infrastructure and utility work that is most resilient in a tough economy. None of that happened by accident. We went out and pushed for massive capital plans in Indiana and Illinois. We partnered with public utilities to advance their investment plans and secure Project Labor Agreements on them to guarantee that the work would be done union.

When we talk about the importance of the upcoming road and bridge work in Illinois as part of the largest capital plan in the state’s history, let’s not forget the importance of the Illinois Safe Roads Amendment that we got passed in 2016. A tough economy is when government would be trying to sweep the road fund, but the smart moves we made then are going to protect our work today, when we need it the most. Looking forward, we aren’t only focused on keeping services available, but also in advancing our interests. One of our highest priorities is the Illinois Workers’ Rights Amendment, which will amend the Illinois Constitution to prohibit the passage of a “right-to-work” law at any time while also protecting collective bargaining for public and private employees. It is in times like these that opportunistic anti-union interests will try to use a shaky economy to push “right-to-work” laws and other attacks on workers, so this is precisely the time that we have to be vigilant in protecting ourselves.

Local 150 has fought back against “right-to-work” laws and ordinances every place that is has popped up, and this is an opportunity to protect Illinois workers for generations. “Right-to-work” won’t be something that becomes a threat any time an election changes the leadership in Springfield. We will become the first state to enact an outright ban on these shameful attacks on workers, and we will give the rest of the country a blueprint on how to fight back. We are working with legislators to secure this amendment’s place on the ballot this November, and we will have much more information for you soon.

Again, with information changing so rapidly, I would encourage you to check Local150.org, and update your email at www.my150.com to receive the latest news from Local 150. However this challenge evolves, take comfort in the knowledge that we are adapting along with it. We won’t just react, we will take proactive steps to protect our members no matter what we face. And when this strange, uncertain time has passed, I will be glad to see you all at our union meetings.

United We Stand, Divided We Fall.