Labor activists hold protest rally at Express Scripts operation here | St. Louis Public Radio

Labor activists hold protest rally at Express Scripts operation here

Aug 29, 2010

Express Scripts' expansion in north St. Louis County may have made the pharmaceutical supplier the darling of state and regional officials. But it's also put the growing firm at odds with some major unions, many of whom contract with the firm for their workers' medicines.

And those tensions could spread here.

Today, about 75 protesters -- many of them with the Service Employees International Union -- staged a rally in front of the Express Scripts' local headquarters just off Interstate 70. The issue: the firm's tense negotiations with SEIU-represented workers in Bensalem, Pa. The facility, obtained during a 1998 acquisition, is among Express Scripts' few unionized operations.

About a third of today's protesters, including Dan Hanney, came from Bensalem. They are traveling on a bus to several Express Scripts facilities to publicize the troubled Pennsylvania talks, which center on Express Scripts' effort to reduce benefits and pension costs at the Bensalem facility.

"Their benefits package is different from the rest of our system," said local Express Scripts spokesman Thom Gross. "This (negotiations) is not about unions, it's about bringing our costs in line."

Gross confirmed, however, the union's contention that the future of the Bensalem operation and its 950 employees may be at stake. "We're in negotiations to try to keep the jobs in Bensalem," he said.

St. Louis' Express Scripts officials acknowledge that their expansion here -- launched with huge political fanfare in June -- came at the expense of the Bensalem operation, after the company and the union could not reach an agreement on the proposed expansion. Express Scripts chose instead to move the 300 new jobs to its St. Louis facility, which is non-union.

The upshot is that the St. Louis facility may be in line to gain jobs if Express Scripts opts to close or cut back at the Bensalem plant.

Hanney, the Bensalem worker, said the bus tour is aimed at sending another message: "We think there is room for expansion in Missouri without losing jobs in Pennsylvania."

National labor consultant Ray Abernathy, who is traveling on the SEIU bus, said that the tour launches a campaign to raise the visibility of the Pennsylvania fight and to promote general support from labor and its allies. The current contract at Bensalem expires on Dec. 15, he said.

The dispute could put some of the region's public officials -- especially Democrats, who rely on labor support -- in a difficult spot should the region's labor movement put pressure on Express Scripts here.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat in a combative re-election contest, has been touting the Express Scripts' expansion as an example of his success. If the tensions continue, he may need to excise such talk from his stump speech, especially before union audiences.

Ironically, today's rally comes as Missouri's AFL-CIO kicks off its annual meeting in downtown St. Louis. Although SEIU, the nation's largest union, is no longer part of the AFL-CIO as a result of a 2005 split, the two labor factions have increasingly been working together -- especially on political campaigns and labor disputes of mutual concern.

It will be interesting to see if the issue of Express Scripts comes up during the downtown union convention.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.