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Workers at a String of Packinghouses Win a Voice on the Job with UFCW

Feature article by Kari Lydersen from In These Times. 

A String of Slaughterhouse Successes for UFCW

Workers at the Farmland Foods meatpacking plant in Carroll, Iowa, make a starting wage of $11 an hour. Workers at a similar plant owned by the same company 25 miles away in Denison, Iowa, make $14.60 an hour, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. That’s one of the reasons, according to UFCW spokesman Marc Goumbri, that in October a majority of the about 125 workers at the Carroll plant voted to join the UFCW Local 440.

Wage disparity with a nearby union plant was also a driving force behind another vote in a string of union election victories for the UFCW this fall. In an early November election, a majority (1292 to 824) of  around 2,500 workers at a National Beef slaughterhouse and packing plant in Dodge City, Kansas, decided to join the UFCW Local 2. The union has long represented workers at a Cargill plant nearby. Goumbri told In These Times:

When you have a union facility that’s not far away, what you see is workers know from the get-go what having a union can mean for them and their families and the community—the wages at the union plant are much higher.

Goumbri said the National Beef election along with an October election at a JBS beef slaughterhouse in Plainwell, Mich., helped the union significantly bolster its “density” in the beef industry. The Michigan workers brought the UFCW’s total membership at JBS plants to about 28,000. Additionally, in September, about 300 workers at a Nebraska Prime kosher beef plant in Hastings, Neb., voted to join the union’s Local 293.

Now, Goumbri said, the UFCW represents about 60 percent of beef and about 72 percent of pork slaughterhouse and packing house workers nationwide. He told In These Times:

When a lot of workers are represented by a union in a particular industry, they use the strength they have in numbers to raise the floor for everyone… These are well-paying union jobs that come with wages and benefits – in the current economic state our communities are in desperate need of such jobs.

A 2008 article by Cornell University professor Richard Hurd about UFCW retail food (grocery) organizing notes that even when the union has a high concentration in a given sector, it needs a unified national bargaining strategy in order to effectively advocate for its members in changing, consolidated industries.

In the above four campaigns, the union said the employers agreed to remain neutral and allow a fair vote free of intimidation or other interference. Goumbri said this is not the norm in the industry or in general, but that in these cases the employers understood there was widespread support for unionization and that the employees were determined.  He told In These Times:

Companies are still hell-bent on preventing workers from having a free and fair process. (Fair elections) come when companies see workers are really united and the workers just take a stand, and the company knows workers are determined to make that choice. These were workers who knew exactly what they wanted and knew what their rights were.

Slaughterhouses and packinghouses are significant targets for unionization, since the jobs are typically grueling and dangerous and often employ a high percentage of Latino immigrants and African refugees.

(Denison, site of the two Farmland Foods plants, made national news in 2002 when the skeletal remains of immigrants were found in a boxcar. Horrified and sympathetic residents noted the quickly growing Latino population drawn by the slaughterhouses, though it’s not clear the people in the boxcar were specifically bound for Denison.)

Goumbri said wages, benefits and conditions will all be the focus of contract negotiations at each workplace, with workers at the kosher slaughterhouse also prioritizing Sundays off (the plant is closed on Saturdays).

Goumbri said the National Beef unionizing campaign built momentum this year after workers attempted to organize last year in an effort that didn’t result in an election. The JBS election came after just several months of organizing, he said.

Support locked out meat workers in New Zealand

The New Zealand lamb processor, CMP, has brutally locked out 111 workers at its plant in Marton in order to force them and their union, the New Zealand Meatworkers Union, to sign off on pay cuts and unacceptable changes to terms and conditions.

Members of the New Zealand Meat Workers Union at CMP ANZCO have been targeted by a particularly vicious form of union busting which is being practiced more and more in IUF sectors across the globe. It works like this: an employer proposes radical changes to terms and conditions in CBA negotiations, then goes through the motions of bargaining with the union while actually just biding time, then locks out the workers in an attempt to force a signature on an essentially non-negotiated agreement.

To learn more and send a message to CMP’s parent company, ANZCO Foods, demanding an end to the lockout and a return to the bargaining table, click here!

NATIONAL BEEF WORKERS CHOOSE UNITED FOOD AND COMMERCIAL WORKERS FOR A UNION VOICE ON THE JOB

(Dodge City, Kan.) – A majority of the 2,500 workers at National Beef’s Dodge City, Kansas beef slaughter and processing facility voted to join UFCW District Local 2, in an election conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, on Thursday and Friday, November 3 and 4, 2011.

The workers’ campaign began when several National Beef workers contacted the UFCW seeking a union voice on the job. At that time, National Beef and the UFCW agreed on a fair and balanced process that allowed employees to vote on whether or not they wanted union representation. UFCW represents the workers at a neighboring Cargill beef slaughter and processing plant in Dodge City.

“Helping to organize my co-workers into a union was a life changing journey,” said Rebecca McGary, a worker in the fabrication department at National Beef.

“We know that workers at Cargill, just down the street from National Beef, have had a contract with Local 2 for many years – and that means they have always had a say in their wages, benefits and working conditions,” said Ramon Prieto who works on the kill floor at National Beef and who took a leading role in organizing his co-workers. “That’s why I voted to join the UFCW, so that we all will have a chance to negotiate benefits and salaries, job security, and a better life for our families.”

The National Beef workers are the latest in a series of meatpacking workers to join the UFCW at locations across the country. On October 19, approximately 1,000 workers at a JBS beef kill facility in Plainwell, Michigan joined UFCW Local 951. On October 25, 125 workers at a Farmland Foods facility in Carroll, Iowa joined UFCW Local 440. And in late September, 300 workers at Nebraska Prime in Hastings, Nebraska joined UFCW Local 293.