A judge ordered one of Chicago’s most politically powerful labor unions to suspend picketing against 16 funeral homes last week after receiving reports that striking Teamsters had, among other things, disturbed a child’s funeral.
SCI Illinois Services, Inc., one of the nation’s largest funeral home chains, asked a district court to intervene after striking funeral directors and drivers with Teamsters Local 727 allegedly harassed grieving families.
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"We are grateful that the court agreed to issue this temporary restraining order, and we are hopeful that it will help protect grieving families who are experiencing the most difficult times of their lives," Larry Michael, managing director for SCI Illinois Services, Inc., said in a release. "While we recognize and respect the Teamsters' right to lawfully picket, we have been shocked and saddened by their attempts to make grieving families the target of the cruel and outrageous attacks."
The company testified in its filing that union members blocked grieving family members from leaving its parking lot, used bullhorns to shout obscenities at workers and mourners, and unleashed a German Shepard on a dead woman’s daughter and husband.
The funeral home was eventually forced to call the police when picketers allegedly disrupted a child’s funeral with laughter. The officer asked the Teamsters to leave, but protesters returned when he drove away.
"We will be here for the visitation; we will be here for your funeral," Teamster driver Lester Plewa allegedly shouted into a bullhorn as a funeral director met with a dying man planning his arrangements with family members.
The appellate court ordered the Teamsters on July 25 to "refrain from conveying any actual or veiled threats against any person, also, refrain from obstructing, hindering, impeding or blocking any person's entry to or exit from any funeral site or any facility containing a funeral site."
The Teamsters have been on strike since July 1 after rejecting the company’s offer of nine percent raises for all union members over the next two years.
Secretary-Treasurer John T. Coli, one of Illinois’ most influential labor leaders, heads the 6,800-member union. Coli brokered the Teamsters endorsement of Barack Obama during his then-long shot campaign for the Democratic nomination—a major turning point in the 2008 primary.
Obama, then a junior senator of Illinois, pledged in private meetings with Teamster leadership to end federal oversight of the powerful union, which had come under scrutiny for its ties to the mafia under Jimmy Hoffa, father to current Teamsters President James Hoffa Jr. Both sides denied any quid pro quo in the deal.
Coli has since arranged other political endorsements that have worked in the union’s favor. The Teamsters were the only major labor organization to endorse President Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral campaign. Emanuel pledged to crack down on unions to help resolve Chicago’s then-$650 million budget deficit.
A Chicago Tribune analysis found that only one of the nine labor reforms proposed by Emanuel after his election would hurt the Teamsters, while some of the proposals, such as privatizing city recycling, would increase the union’s private sector workload.
The mayor also ignored Chicago Inspector General Joe Ferguson’s recommendation to scuttle a Teamsters contract to shuttle city workers to and from job sites. The contract was fraught with waste since Teamsters were being paid to sit in their trucks waiting for the workers to finish.
"Simply from the standpoint of looking for low-hanging fruit, that contract has built into it $18 million in waste," Ferguson told the Tribune regarding the Teamsters.
Union members walked out of SCI funeral homes after heated negotiations because the company asked to cut its ties to the Teamsters pension fund. The company filed a racketeering lawsuit against the union in 2011 alleging that it tried to illegally boost SCI’s pension contributions to the pension fund. After confronting the union with the information, union members allegedly vandalized three SCI funeral homes.
The case is pending in federal court.
A Teamsters release said the picket lines succeeded at driving business away from SCI homes. The release cites several instances in which families sought to bury their loved ones at different funeral homes upon seeing the labor unrest outside. The union took such requests as a sign of support.
"The Teamsters cannot thank those families enough who’ve stood alongside workers," Coli said in the release, which goes on to note that "the Teamsters have assisted all families to quickly secure new services."
The Teamsters did not return requests for comment, but Coli denied that union members harassed family members and accused SCI of bullying the union in a release.
SCI, which does not comment on "active lawsuits," said in a statement that it "regretted the necessity" of judicial intervention.
"We felt it was imperative due to the repeated incidents of gross insensitivity, harassment and profane comments directed toward grieving families, as well as threats of violence by Teamsters representatives participating in these picketing efforts," Michael said.
The court will decide on a permanent injunction against the union on Friday.