The lockout of 59 funeral directors and drivers by Service Corporation International (SCI) at 16 Chicago-area funeral homes has not only cost workers their livelihoods, it has removed them from doing what they do best -- serving the needs of their communities as many have done for decades.
As the labor dispute with the funeral industry giant stretches into its fourth month, several striking funeral home directors represented by Teamsters Local 727 said they have been repeatedly contacted by families and religious leaders with whom they have dealt with for years who are seeking advice on funeral arrangements. And while they have offered counsel, it is not the same being there to do the job in those peoples’ time of need.
Vincent Giff, 53, a funeral home director with SCI-owned Blake-Lamb Funeral Home in Oak Lawn, Ill. who has worked there for 24 years, said he has heard from both families and clergy members who have sought his advice. Many have been wary of SCI for years, but kept coming back because of workers like him.
“They like us because we are the face of the home. Their personal relationship is with us,” Giff said while choking up during an interview. “I thought I was going to retire from this place. It is very upsetting to say the least.”
Larry Mandel, 65, a fourth-generation Jewish funeral home director who serves as senior managing funeral director at the once family-owned Piser Funeral Services in Skokie, Ill., said he too has spoken to many families about making arrangements since going out on strike that he has relationships going back generations.
Part of industry for 33 years, Mandel said he is saddened to see the reputation of the funeral business which has roots in his family going back to 1892 soiled by SCI’s greed. He noted the company wants to switch out the current health and retirement plans with less generous ones offered by SCI, as well as do away with collective bargaining and seniority.
“This is nuts,” he said. “No one in their right mind would ever expect them not to bargain in good faith, eviscerate a contract that has been in place since 1946, and refuse to allow us to come back to work when they want to.”
Angela Anello, 47, who has worked for SCI in the Chicago area for more than 20 years, said it pains her to see the work being done by scabs hired to replace her and other union workers. She has witnessed, for example, the replacement workers not directing funeral processions correctly, which makes her wonder what’s going inside the building.
The funeral director at Drake and Sons Funeral Home on the north side of Chicago for the past four years, Anello said SCI doesn’t realize the dedication its Teamster workers have for their jobs.
“This is a calling for us. We drop everything,” she said. “We don’t have to be on call. But we do it because it has to be done. The company forgets what we have done.”
While these dedicated workers want to return to their jobs, however, SCI is preventing it. It has engaged in shady practices during the labor dispute, as Region 13 of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) confirmed late last month when it found merit in several unfair labor practice charges filed against the company.
According to the regional NLRB, SCI has engaged in bad faith bargaining by direct dealing with union members during the ongoing contract negotiations with Local 727; threatening members with loss of vacation; engaging in unlawful surveillance of union activity; and unlawfully soliciting withdrawals from the union. Meanwhile, the labor board found no merit in scurrilous accusations made by the company against the union.
SCI funeral directors said they are angry it has come to this, especially since it was so unnecessary. Giff noted that he worked two blocks from where he grew up and the company’s action threatens its continued relationship with the neighborhood, something that benefitted everyone involved.
“I’m very offended that this has happened, that [SCI] created this situation,” he said.