Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

December 10, 2012

Consolidated workers strike over pension plan

Bill Grimes
Effingham Daily News

EFFINGHAM — Striking Consolidated Communications telephone company employees began picketing Friday to protest what a union representative billed as “unfair labor practices.”

    Consolidated employees picketed at two Effingham locations for most of the day Friday. The larger group carried signs on Ford Avenue north of the Menards store for most of the day before joining a smaller group in front of the Consolidated office on South Fifth Street for the rest of the afternoon.

    Statewide, 188 members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 702 began striking Friday at a number of locations, including Effingham, Shelbyville, Mattoon, Charleston, Litchfield and Hillsboro. Striking workers include field service technicians, operators, material control specialists and switching technicians.

    Employees had been working without a contract since Nov. 15.

    Local 702 business representative Brad Beisner said Friday that the strike began at 10 p.m. Thursday after negotiations broke down earlier that day.

    Beisner, who is based in West Frankfort, said the company made “unreasonable demands” that led to talks breaking down.

    “They weren’t going to discuss the remaining issues on the table unless we met their demands,” he said.

    While Beisner declined to discuss details of the negotiations, he said the biggest sticking point was what he termed “unnecessary drastic cuts” to the employee pension plan.

    But Consolidated senior vice president Steve Shirar said the company’s proposal to move from a “defined benefit” to a “defined contribution” pension plan was a necessary step to secure the company’s ability to maintain any kind of pension plan.

    “We’re not taking anybody’s pension,” Shirar said. “But people are working longer and living longer than they used to.

    “The defined benefit has been dependent on stock markets,” he added. “Because those markets have been so bad, the company has had to contribute to these pensions at a high level.

    Shirar said the company’s proposal would freeze current pension earnings at their current level. The company would set aside 4 percent of each employee’s pay toward any future pension.

    Shirar said the company’s proposal includes “generous” wage increases, employee bonuses if the contract is ratified by Dec. 14, and a promise to bring highly-skilled work to Illinois.

    Beisner said the union remains willing to negotiate at any time. He said, however, that the company cancelled a scheduled Monday morning negotiating session.

    No further talks are set. But Consolidated’s Shirar said the sooner the two sides can get together, the better off all will be.

    “Both sides need to take sides and assess where they are at,” he said. “Strikes are not good for anybody.

    “We hope these issues can be resolved and people can get back to work.”

    In the meantime, Shirar said, management personnel are doing the jobs temporarily vacated by union personnel. He does not anticipate any reduction of company services.

    Bill Grimes can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 132, or at bill.grimes@effinghamdailynews.com.