'Norwalk has been phenomenally supportive' of strikers

Cary Ashby • Sep 11, 2017 at 9:10 PM

The strike by Maple City Ice Co. truck drivers entered Day 11 Monday.

“This group has never had to strike,” said Mark Schmiehausen, a trustee and business representative of Teamsters’ Union Local 20. 

“We came to an impasse over the pension fund,” he added. “We want the company to continue to participate in the pension fund.”

Fifteen truck drivers have set up at two locations — both of which are owned by the Hipp family: Maple City Ice, 371 Cleveland Road, and about a mile down the road at the strip mall at 134 Cleveland Road. The Hipps also own the building that houses the Ohio BMV Driver Exams Services, which is next to the strip mall. Union members said they plan to remain there until there is a resolution.

Seven Maple City Ice union drivers from Lorain County Beverage have joined the eight workers who already were on strike. Lorain County Beverage is under the umbrella of Maple City Ice.

Those seven drivers “are recognizing the picket and not crossing it,” Schmiehausen said.

Pat Hipp, Maple City Ice CEO, issued an email statement explaining the pension situation.

“Contrary to reports, the Maple City Ice Co. is not taking the pensions away from the eight employees who went out on strike on Sept. 1,” she wrote.

“There is nothing we would like more than to see these eight employees receive the pension they earned through Central States. These eight employees do not belong to Maple City Ice’s pension plan; they belong to the Teamsters Union Multi-Employer Central States Pension Fund, which they have chosen to contribute to for many years. However, the Central States Pension Fund is quickly going broke.

“This year, the trustees of the Central States Pension Fund notified both employers and employees that the fund has a deficit of over $22 billion and will have to cut benefits or be bailed out by Congress in the near future to survive,” Hipp continued in her prepared statement.

“Currently, employers are required to make up the unfunded portion of the Central States Plan for their own employees if we withdraw from the plan. Our unfunded liability for these eight employees is over $3 million and goes up dramatically each year.

“As hundreds of other companies have done, our hope is to withdraw from the Plan and pay the unfunded liability, which preserves the benefits they have earned to date and provide our employees with an additional form of pension benefit going forward so they are not throwing good money down a rabbit hole,” she said.

“With the help of our loyal non-union employees we have been able to carry on our day-to-day operations. Recently, we signed a new five-year contract with the Teamsters covering our Lorain drivers. After the Lorain drivers crossed the picket line the first week of the Norwalk strike and delivered beer as usual, the union rep met with the Lorain drivers on Sunday, Sept. 10. As a result, for some unknown reason, none of these drivers showed up for work Monday, Sept. 11. The Lorain drivers bargained out of the Central States Pension Fund five years ago,” Hipp added.

The strike, now heading into its second work week, is based on a dispute about the union members’ pension, which is part of their compensation package. Schmiehausen said a contract ended in late February and there was a verbal agreement to continue negotiations at the time, but now “Maple City Ice wants to withdraw from the pension.”

“(It’s) the most precious benefit you have,” he added.

While the drivers are on strike, they said Maple City Ice is using family members to do their job. One union member, who declined to be identified, said it’s unknown if those people driving their trucks are certified to do so.

“People we’ve never seen before,” said one union member, referring to the current drivers.

“(They’re) pulling out all the resources they can,” said union driver Matt Hunter, who was set up with three other union members in front of the Cleveland Road strip mall and BMV on Monday.

One union member encouraged residents who are interested in showing their support of the strike to call 1-800-DIAL BUD. 

“Any support they feel (they can show) will be helpful,” he added.

While the union members were being interviewed, several passing cars and trucks honked to show their solidarity.

“The support from the community has been unreal,” said one union member at Maple City Ice, prompting several drivers to enthusiastically agree and say they appreciate it.

Schmiehausen, in a separate interview, agreed.

“Norwalk has been phenomenally supportive of us — teachers, firefighters,” he said.

Union member Matt Mutchler said strangers have stopped by and given them water and food.

Early in the strike, Maple City Ice released a statement, stating it was business as usual — despite having fewer hands on deck.

“Maple City Ice Co. has about 100 employees working out of locations in Norwalk, Elyria and Mansfield,” company officials said in the prepared statement. “All of our locations, including Norwalk, are open for business and we will continue to sell and deliver beer as usual.”

It’s unknown what it will take for both sides to come to an agreement. Schmiehausen said Maple City Ice last communicated with the union Thursday.

“We’re set to renegotiate this Thursday. Going back to to the table to get it done,” he added.

The strike started the Friday before Labor Day.

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