CUNA Mutual Union Votes On New Contract

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A long and bitter labor dispute at CUNA Mutual Group appeared near an end last week as the company's employees union, the Office and Professional Employees International Union, Local 39, was expected to vote to ratify a new contract agreement.

Union officials were optimistic, but guarded, as the 1,360 rank and file members were voting to end a 15-month impasse with the credit union insurer. "It's going to be close," said John Peterson, chief negotiator for the Local 39.

Under the four-year contract, union members will receive average pay raises of 4% a year, with lump-sum pay retroactive to last October, seven months after the March 31, 2004 expiration of the last contract.

The contract was hammered out by top officials of CUNA Mutual and the OPEIU, including President Michael Goodwin, in the days before the union vote, will resolve many of the key sticking points that have led to the bitter labor fight:

* Work hours: the paid work week will be increased slightly from 37 hours to 37.5 hours, down from the 40 hours originally proposed by the company. That doesn't include the half-hour a day, 2.5 hours a week, of unpaid time employees are charged for lunch.

* Outsourcing: the union gave up the right to dispute outsourcing contracts in exchange for generous benefits paid to any employees affected by an outsourcing contract, including severance pay, outplacement assistance, and health insurance for up to a year. The contract will also change the employees' retirement plan from a defined benefits plan to a cash balance plan, saving CUNA Mutual money.

It will also change the health insurance options, by reducing the choices from four Health Maintenance Organizations in January to one HMO and one Preferred Provider Organization, while raising deductibles.

A CUNA Mutual spokesman would not discuss the details of the agreement. "I can tell you that we are satisfied with the agreement that has been reached," said Sydney Lindner, in a prepared statement. "The union has indicated in communications to its members that it will recommend ratification of the contract proposal, with a vote scheduled for Thursday, June 16. We're pleased to get the recommendation for the ratification and we're hopeful we can see an end to the contract dispute."

The agreement would end a protracted labor dispute that has turned ugly at times, with the union waging a so-called corporate campaign by contacting credit union customers of CUNA Mutual to muddy the company's image and union members picketing company headquarters and the homes and offices of CUNA Mutual directors.

For its part, CUNA Mutual has waged a concerted effort against the union, which has lead some labor leaders to charge the company with union-busting, especially after former CEO Michael Kitchen was fired after he helped finance an effort to break the Local 39 into separate parts. The separate group eventually hired a well-known union-busting attorney who helped in the decertification of the same union from CUNA CU three years ago. Federal labor authorities have found the company in violation of labor laws.

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