Funeral home workers on strike

July 2, 2013

(Shannon Heffernan/WBEZ)
Funeral Workers picket outside of a Chicago funeral home. The workers are striking over the loss of pensions.

Funeral director Angela Anello stood in a picket line outside a funeral home on Chicago’s far North Side.

“People die 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We are available for them 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” she said.

But, right now, Anello is not available. That’s because she’s on strike, along with 59 other employees of North America’s largest funeral home network.

In tiny letters below the sign for Drake & Son Funeral Home, where Anello works, it reads Service Corporation International. That’s the name of the $3 billion Houston-based company that owns the home.

Brian Rainville is a spokesperson for Teamsters 727, which represents the funeral workers. He says that as the funeral industry has been consolidated into big companies, workers sometimes suffer. In fact, Rainville says Chicago is one of the last bastions for organized funeral directors. The workers unanimously voted to strike when the company replaced their pensions with 401k plans.

“It’s just shameful, because this company is healthy, ” said Rainville.

Service Corporation International says that the pensions have become more expensive to fund over the years and that they offer good salaries, with some funeral directors making over $100,000 a year.

The company has flown in directors from California to fill in for striking workers.

Anello has worked as a funeral director for 20 years. She says she knows the number of steps at churches in her neighborhood and how many pallbearers that means a funeral procession will need.

“I mean, there are so many details that people don’t even think about. We are familiar with these ministers and the different cultures in the community.” Anella says the fill-in workers can’t do that.

But the striking workers are maintaining a certain reverence for mourning families. When families who planned a funeral before the strike show up to a home, the workers will set down their signs, get in their cars and wait. But when a new family shows up the workers will stay. They will direct those families to a list of worker-friendly funeral homes.