As we awaited the union-busting Janus decision during these last few months, Teamsters Local 700 has talked with many of our members, families and friends about the impact of the decision, as we imagined what workplaces would be like without a union. Sandy Strzechowksi, the mother of our own President Becky Strzechowski, stopped by to tell us her experience working for a family-owned company that made their own rules.
In 1987, Sandy Strzechowski decided it was time to return to the work force full-time to bring in some extra income to her household. Her youngest child had just turned 16-years-old and while she worked on and off part-time while raising her three children, she wanted to help her husband, Larry, support the family.
“I was lucky,” said Sandy. “I had a husband who was a Chicago police officer and he supported us. When I decided to get a job, I did it more to help my husband as our children were getting older and going off to college. I was fortunate that I didn’t need to worry about supporting my children on my own. The job was to bring in money, period.”
Sandy was hired to do accounting and other office work by a family-owned fashion jewelry company that was based on the North side of Chicago. The company had been in operation since 1955 when it was started by a husband and wife that went door to door selling their jewelry.
“When I started, they told me that ‘you get promoted within the company’ but after a short time I realized that there wasn’t a position that was in a higher category than what I already did,” said Sandy.
The original Chicago space was comprised of individual storefronts that the company had rented and merged together as they grew. The company’s owners lived in the North suburbs and decided to move the heart of the operation to a spacious warehouse in Schaumburg. For those that needed transportation, the company provided two vans to take people from the Chicago location to the new Schaumburg location everyday. Sandy was one of them.
“They promised we would get a $1 raise if we decided to continue working there after the move,” said Sandy. “When we got out there, they told us that the business was not doing as good as they thought and there would be no $1 raise. My husband told me to quit because they didn’t keep their promise and that I could find something closer if I wanted to.”
When Sandy told her boss that she was giving her two-week notice, he went to one of the Vice Presidents and asked to give her the raise to keep her on staff.
“I was a hard worker and I did whatever needed to get done, especially if someone else needed help,” said Sandy. “They gave me the $1 raise and told me that no one else would be getting it and asked that I not tell anyone.”
Then, more empty promises came. “They stopped the van from taking us back and forth to work for about a month and then they restarted it, “said Sandy. “I knew someone that worked in Chicago so we carpooled back and forth, but I really hated driving, especially in the winter – I was nervous. Eventually they stopped the van service completely and told us we had to drive ourselves out there.”
Inside the company’s warehouse was a factory with predominantly female workers who boxed and shipped all of the jewelry orders. The offices that were adjacent to the factory housed other employees like Sandy, who kept track of inventory and did payroll, accounting and other paper work that was needed. With the move and advance in technology, there were new systems in place that Sandy and other office staff had to teach themselves. There was never any type of class or formal training involved.
Sales reps were hired to show and sell the jewelry all over the country, and were given incentives and bonuses based on their sales numbers. There were contests between sales reps and the sales always spiked around Christmas. Once the Christmas season was over, the company would experience a slowdown and layoff employees – in the sales field, in the office and in the factory.
“Seniority played no role in who they called back after Christmas,” said Sandy. “Many of the women who worked in the factory were there for years and some of them were just not called back. If they didn’t like you, you weren’t called back.”
Sandy and the other office staff received Christmas bonuses for a few years, until they stopped giving them out and blamed poor sales on the loss. Sandy remembers when the recession hit, there were tons of orders. “I never saw that they were hurting financially,” she said. “They used that false information so that they could stop giving bonuses.”
Everyone in the office was expected to work 40 hours a week. Payroll would end every Wednesday so that the paychecks could be sent out to the sales people every Thursday. Sandy and the other office staff would typically stay until 9 p.m. on Wednesdays to get the work done.
“We worked 40 hours a week,” said Sandy. “If you worked more than 40 hours, you got overtime. But if you took a sick day during those regular 40 hours, or were an hour late due to bad weather, you did not get paid any overtime even though you worked it.
The office staff would sometimes have to come in on Saturdays – and even some Sundays – to finish the work and there was no double-time or triple-time for those hours.
Sandy remembers one time when the bathroom next to her office broke. “There was water coming out of the bathroom and I had to sit there because we needed to get the work done,” she said. “It was probably well over a week that it was like that and people were peeing in there because we didn’t have a lot of bathrooms. It was disgusting. There were other instances like that and if they didn’t fix it right away, they got around to it when they felt like it.”
The company also required a doctor’s note for anyone that took a sick day. If an employee called in sick and could not provide a doctor’s note upon returning to work, that employee wouldn’t get paid for the time they missed. No sick days or personal time was given to the employees. Sandy received a week of vacation after working there for a year and had two weeks of vacation after 10 years.
“They made rules for themselves,” said Sandy. “They would make a rule one day and change it the next.”
When Larry retired from the police force in 2001, Sandy went down to working three days a week. She left the company for good in 2004 to help take care of her new grandson.
“When I left, I walked away with nothing,” said Sandy. “They gave me a ring that had been sitting on a shelf from one of the old sales contests. There was no retirement, no pension – nothing. I was lucky that I had a husband who supported us and took care of us. I can’t imagine being a single mom – or just not having a lot of money – and having to work there and walk away with nothing. This is a company that needs a union to back the employees because of the rules changing constantly. When you start out, money is very important. You don’t think about retirement until it happens. Looking back, I wish I had a union to fight for my future.”