Chicago Undertakers In Teamsters Union Go On Strike

funeral director strikeAngela Anello has worked in funeral homes in Chicago for 25 years. Anello, right, loves helping people through times of loss, and is compensated $95,000 a year for the work. At age 47, she was planning on retiring in 13 years, thanks to a robust pension plan.

But now, along with 35 funeral directors and 23 drivers represented by Teamsters Local 727, Anello is on strike.

A Pension Plan of Dreams: For over a week, workers have been picketing 16 Chicago funeral homes owned by Service Corp. International, the giant of the deathcare industry, which operates 1,400 funeral homes and almost 400 cemeteries across the U.S., Canada and Germany. SCI is demanding that they scratch their generous pension plan, and replace it with a 401(k). The workers are furious, and refusing to budge. SCI isn't caving either, and has filled those funeral homes with replacement workers.

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"I probably wouldn't be able to retire until 70 or later," Anello says about the proposed plan. "They're tearing apart and gutting our contract to the point where we wouldn't really have any rights. White collar workers in America need to start standing up for themselves."

Most white collar workers certainly have lost the kind of deal that Anello and her unionized colleagues' enjoy. Salaries that can rise into the six figures? Retirement at 60? An old school pension plan that will take care of these funeral directors until they end up in the funeral home themselves? This is now the stuff of fairy tales in America, as we have become, as economist Tom Friedman dubbed it, "a 401(k) world."

In fact, the Chicago funeral directors on strike, with pay averaging between $70,000 and $80,000 a year, earn significantly more than most funeral directors in the country, who have an average salary of $54,330, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But the Teamsters Local 727 believes its workers' pay and benefits are perfectly deserved, particularly when SCI's profits are booming.

A Bloody Fight: "The funeral home is more than just a business. It's not an assembly line," says union spokesman Brian Rainville. "It's the relationship between the funeral directors and the families and the clergy in the community. It's not working in a fast-food restaurant, putting together the lettuce, tomatoes and the bun. It's not that."

The funeral workers are right, in a sense, to fight against SCI's proposal: For them, the new deal is a much, much worse deal. And SCI is right, in a sense, to fight for it: For them, it would be much, much cheaper.

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There's much at stake, and the battle is vicious. SCI claims that the pension funds are seriously underfunded, and that the Teamsters, headed by a corrupt family dynasty, have attempted to cover this up through "an extortionate, fraudulent scheme" for over a decade, according to a lawsuit that SCI filed in 2011. The Teamsters counter that SCI has simply refused to shell out what it owes, and have sued them to pay up.

The union says that the proposal is just a corporate ploy for SCI to maximize its profits, and SCI certainly doesn't have the cleanest reputation in that respect. The company has been mired in lawsuits in recent years, amid claims that it smashed up vaults and "bunk bedded" bodies to squeeze more into plots, among other ugly allegations.

"Corporations are getting richer. Corporate giants and their CEOs making millions of dollars a year," says Anello, "while they continue to take away the pay and benefits of their workers."

(The total compensation package of SCI's CEO Thomas Ryan last year was $9.1 million, according to SEC filings.)

Someone Has To Pay: Under the plan in the workers' last contract, which expired at the end of June, Anello was able to retire after 30 years of work, and would have earned a monthly pension based on the value of her "pension credits." Right now, with 20 credits at a value of $100 a piece, that would equal $2,000 a month -- a value that likely would have continued to rise.

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Anello doesn't understand how younger workers could possibly save for retirement under the alternative SCI is proposing: a 401(k) with an employer match up to 4 percent. (Anello points out that this 4 percent contribution takes away most of the 6 percent raise that SCI has suggested to sweeten the deal.)

"It adds up to several hundred thousand dollars over the course of a lifetime," Anello says about the pension plan versus a 401(k). "This isn't something the company can't afford. They can more than afford it. They just don't want to afford it."

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