"Well, how's the food?" Bonelli says with an awkward smile as he spots the driver at a table by the window. "Good," the man replies, forcing an equally tense grin. When the driver gets up to leave a few minutes later, Cagle and Bonelli don't budge. Normally they'd head after him, but today they want to finish a meal sitting down. They can guess his next stop anyway; they used to run these routes, and hope to do so again. Bonelli has driven for Overnite since 1983, Cagle since 1988.
"I like the company in a lot of ways," Bonelli says, "and these guys are my friends. After all this, we're closer than we ever were." Of the 56 drivers, loading-dock workers and mechanics who walked out of the Blaine terminal on October 25 when the Teamsters called the nationwide strike, 16 are still out. Many still visit the strike line, but say they've had to take jobs elsewhere because they couldn't get by on $145 a week in strike pay, even with help from the Teamster-run food shelf. A few men, says Cagle, who is also the union steward for Local 120, just decided to retire.
After five years of organizing, Teamsters say, they represent more than 3,000 workers at 37 of Overnite's terminals. The company is challenging the validity of some of the pro-union votes in court, arguing that only 1,800 workers at 22 terminals are represented by the union. Whatever the number of locals, none of them has been able to secure a contract with Overnite: The Blaine crew voted for the union in 1994 and has been without a contract since. The union at Chicago's Bedford Park terminal has been trying to negotiate a deal for 17 years.
Marlan Osthus, regional attorney for the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), says Teamsters nationwide have filed more than 1,000 charges against Overnite with the board. While many have been rejected, Osthus says there have been a number of rulings in the union's favor. In July 1998, for example, an NLRB judge ruled that Overnite had violated federal labor laws by curtailing overtime pay for union workers who refused to sign a waiver allowing the firm to pay them a flat rate. The company has appealed the decision. Last summer Overnite paid out $1.6 million to workers who, according to the NLRB, were denied raises for nearly two years because they had voted in favor of a union. That case had been on appeal since 1996.
The stakes are high in the Overnite battle, says Peter Rachleff, a professor specializing in labor history at St. Paul's Macalester College. "Companies and workers are watching to see whether it is possible to vote in a union and get a contract at one of the country's most vehemently anti-union companies. This is the Teamsters' biggest fight since they won the 1997 United Parcel Service strike, and they need to win it because unions are a shrinking island and they can't continue to protect their workers if there is no movement forward."
Cagle and Bonelli agree that much rides on the outcome of the strike. If the Teamsters lose, says Bonelli, "we can't go back to Overnite because we'd be fired as soon as we walked in the door." After years of accumulating seniority, neither man wants to start over at a new carrier doing dock duty and working odd hours to gain a position as a driver.
Cagle acknowledges, "Sometimes you're just out there thinking, 'What the hell am I doing?' I know my boy, he's ten, has suffered tremendously. I can see it in his eyes. We haven't been ice fishing or to a game, and when I get home I can't do anything else sometimes." He looks over at Bonelli, who nods in agreement: "My wife has this thing that she says: 'How long can you go on playing cowboys and Indians?' And, honestly, if we hadn't gotten the check from the union last week, I would have had to go out and get another job in the next couple of weeks." Each striker received an additional check in mid-March after members of Local 120 voted to kick in a little extra money for the picketers. "The money really helps," Cagle says. "But what we really need is for the strike to be over so we can have our relationships back."
Back at the terminal, men are taking turns warming up inside a big, brown ice-fishing house donated by a fellow Teamster. It's near dusk and there will probably be only a truck or two for the rest of the night, but strikers remain on the picket line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. "At Christmastime we strung up a bunch of Christmas lights," says Joe Viska, who had driven for Overnite for less than two years when the strike started. "It was really pretty. We ran them off of a generator. We really haven't lost our sense of humor in all of this." Inside the camper-size plywood house are a little stove for heating up coffee or soup, a propane-powered heater, and the kind of debris that piles up when men camp out for long periods--food wrappers, ashtrays, clothing, and blankets. The whole place smells like cigarette smoke mixed with scalded coffee and dirty socks. A couple of guys rummage through boxes of barely expired baked goods, donated by sympathizers. A white-frosted birthday cake keeps getting the once-over before going back into the box.