TEAMSTERS union leaders participated in the annual Martin Luther King Day march in Memphis last Monday.
The Teamsters have a long history with Memphis sanitation workers, going back to the final days in the life of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who turned out in April 1968 to march in solidarity on their behalf in their fight for fair wages.
Led by Teamsters Solid Waste and Recycling Division Director Ron Herrera and Local 667 President James Jones, a large contingent of Teamsters joined with others to honour the contributions of the civil rights icon in a march that terminated on the grounds of the former Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.
The fight for justice, however, cannot end there, Herrera said. ‘Let’s not stop at the Lorraine Motel,’ he stated. ‘Let’s continue our march to these greedy corporations. Let’s continue our march to your city council, your state government. And let’s take it to Washington, D.C.’
But even as this nation marks the sad occasion of the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, the fight for fair wages and working conditions for waste workers in the city and elsewhere isn’t over. Local 667 represents a group of Republic Waste workers working under an expired contract while their employer seeks to gut wages and benefits. Jones said the struggle continues.
‘These men right now are fighting 50 years later for the contract he fought for,’ said Jones, who is the new organiser of the city’s MLK march. ‘This year, we are up for a contract again, and the company is up to the same tricks it was 50 years ago. We want to make sure the community understands what we are doing here.’
Herrera, meanwhile, also represents workers from Republic working on an expired contract at Local 396, where he is Secretary-Treasurer. He came to the march, in part, to show some solidarity on behalf of his members. ‘We’re are going to coordinate Los Angeles and Memphis, Tennessee because that’s what Dr. King wanted us to do,’ he said.
Meanwhile, Cummins workers and their union representatives participated in the annual Whitakers MLK Day March and other Martin Luther King Jr. commemorations last week on January 13-15 to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to demand that Cummins stop medical discrimination against workers in its Rocky Mount plant and much of its US workforce.
At the annual MLK Day March last Monday, 15 January, workers from Cummins, Inc.’s Rocky Mount, N.C. engine plant who are members of Local 150 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers’ (CAAMWU-UE) Union marched together with Teamster-represented workers from Cummins’ facilities in Charleston and Fairmont, West Va.
They were also joined by a representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) Union. The marchers held banners that said, ‘Cummins: Stop Medical Discrimination.’
Since 2011, Cummins has shifted nearly all its employees into an extremely high-deductible health plan that costs $6,000 upfront for families before co-insurance kicks in, and is designed to keep people from seeking medical care. ‘Cummins is trying to force us out of our low-cost, quality union health plan, and into the company’s own high-deductible insurance, even though it won’t provide us the inexpensive primary care services it makes available to its white-collar headquarters staff in Indiana. This is wrong,’ said Jimmy Roberts and Brian Quick, members of Teamsters Local 175 and union stewards at Cummins shops in Charleston and Fairmont, West Va.
Luke Farley, business agent for Teamsters Local 175, said: ‘Our members are about to see their annual medical deductibles jump nine-fold, from $700 up to $6,000 for family healthcare. Their out-of-pocket maximums could be as high as $22,000, and they would also lose access to their free, union-run health clinic in Charleston. Our members in Fairmont have been working without a contract for nearly two years, as Cummins ignores workers’ demands and tries to illegally impose its unaffordable and destructive health plan.’
Cummins is the country’s leading diesel engine manufacturer, with $17.5 billion in sales in 2016. It employs 1,350 workers at its Rocky Mount plant, 70 per cent of whom are African-American. During last weekend’s commemorations of Dr. King, Cummins workers and their community supporters reiterated that affordable healthcare, a union and good pay are human rights. They also revisited the memory and legacy of Dr. King, who was a champion of workers’ rights, unions and broad economic equality.
‘Of all forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane,’ Dr. King once said. High-deductible health insurance plans have been deemed ‘particularly inappropriate for children’ by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and shown to drastically cut the use of all care – even free, preventive and necessary medical care.
Americans under high deductible plans also find their finances put in jeopardy. They report cutting back on essentials such as food and clothing, and experience decreasing savings and fall behind on their bills. A recent survey of Rocky Mount Cummins workers showed that more than 83% of respondents faced problems paying medical bills in the last three years, nearly two-thirds have skipped medications and over a third postponed or skipped getting the health care they needed.
At the MLK Day commemorations in Whitakers, local Cummins workers who are members of CAAMWU-UE Local 150 testified about the human rights crisis at Cummins. Members and representatives from the Teamsters and IAM – both of which represent workers at several Cummins locations – also talked about the effects of exorbitant health care costs.
CAAMWU-UE 150 and Teamsters Local 175 have been campaigning together to lower health care costs for all Cummins workers. In 2017, worker protests forced the company to increase its contributions to workers’ health savings accounts, and to decrease out of pocket maximums for lower-paid workers.
‘While this is progress, Cummins is still just tinkering at the margins of its unaffordable medical plans. Cummins workers need more improvements to secure truly affordable health care for ourselves and our families,’ said Jim Wrenn, President of CAAMWU-UE 150 and an employee at Cummins Rocky Mount.
The Teamsters and UE have been demanding that Cummins (1) reduce its high health care deductibles; (2) make annual health savings account contributions in amounts that match its health insurance deductibles; and (3) extend to all Cummins workplaces the medical services and pricing equivalent to those provided to its headquarters employees in Columbus, Ind. through the Live Well primary care centre.