A Proud History

UFCW members working in packing and processing know that we have the ability to influence wages, benefits and working conditions when we stick together and make our voices heard at work. There is real power in numbers and in solidarity. And, when union workers raise the working and living standards in their community, other businesses follow suit. That’s why the more engaged union members there are in this country, the better off everyone is. Throughout our history, when unions are strong and workers are united, wages go up, health care coverage improves and pensions are strengthened.

History shows that the more unionized meatpacking workers there are, and the more we stick together in solidarity—the more likely it is we can raise wages and conditions for ourselves—and across the packing, poultry, and food processing industries.

A Proud History

It’s been more than 100 years since Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle exposed the terrible working conditions and unsanitary practices going on inside America’s meatpacking plants. The book shocked the nation and that year the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Federal Meat Inspection Act were passed to protect consumers from unsafe meat. Packinghouse workers, however, would have to protect themselves. Workers on the kill and processing floors of plants around the country began uniting in unions to raise their pay and working conditions.

Diversity

During the 1920s, black workers began entering packinghouses and earning skilled positions as butchers on the killing floors. During the early 1930s—and thanks in part to the New Deal’s pro-labor policies—black, white, and immigrant workers of all backgrounds took the lead organizing packinghouse workers in Chicago. These workers overcame ethnic and racial tensions in meatpacking plants that had kept workers divided and unable unite at the bargaining table.

United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) was formed in 1943. Because of their large, active, and committed membership, UPWA was able to wield real power at the bargaining table. Through their solidarity, the workers of the UPWA were able to successfully bargain for increased wages and better working conditions. And they were able to use their tremendous power to benefit our entire society.

Not many people at that time believed that equal pay for black workers was possible—but unionized packinghouse workers had equality written into their contracts. And, talking about pay equity for women did not become politically correct until the 1970s, but packinghouse workers had it written in their contracts in the 1950s. It was a union ahead of its time—regardless of color; sex, or immigrant status, union meatpackers got equal pay for equal work. These meatpackers build a strong, powerful union that would defend their interests as workers and defend their civil rights as well—a tradition that the UFCW is proud to carry on today.

A Changing Industry

In the 1980s the meatpacking industry began to experience major change. Business in the railroad stockyards and city packinghouses declined rapidly. Instead, packing plants arose in rural areas near livestock feedlots. These new plants were equipped with power saws and mechanical knives for a more efficient “disassembly line”. New companies like Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) used financial, technical and engineering power to change the face of the industry. They competed with other companies by increasing worker speed and productivity while cutting labor costs. Other companies either followed suit, or lost out. Small, local and regional companies closed or were bought out by giants like Tyson and Smithfield—and these companies grew into industry leaders. Now, five mega-corporations control more than 80% of the market.

These big, powerful companies continued to increase production speed, increasing the hazards for workers. Companies moved closed union plants and moved operations to states with right-to-work laws that made it difficult for workers to organize themselves into unions and fight for safer line speeds or wage increases. Workers who did seek to organize were met with employer resistance in the form of intimidation.

Today, workers have lost power at the bargaining table. Giant meatpacking and food companies are more determined than ever to keep labor costs as low as possible and production as high as possible. This means hiring cheap labor, maintaining intolerably high line speeds, demanding cuts in wages and benefits from unionized facilities. Many companies actively discourage workers from forming unions. In fact, a recent study by American Rights at Work revealed that 25% of employers fire at least one pro-union worker during worker organizing campaigns.

Other companies actively exploit our broken immigration system, purposely recruiting and hiring undocumented immigrants to create a disposable workforce. These immigrants often don’t speak English and aren’t aware of labor laws or their rights on the job. It’s a vulnerable, easily-intimidated workforce too afraid to speak out when their paychecks aren’t right, when working conditions are not safe or even when there’s a potential problem with the food they’re producing.

This has resulted in an industry where workers have less bargaining power, where it’s becoming harder and harder to earn enough to support families, and where it’s becoming less safe to work. In early 2005, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants,” which concluded that the working conditions in many of America’s meat packing plants violated basic human and worker rights. This was the first time the human rights organization had criticized a single a U.S. industry.

There’s still power in numbers

What the UPWA knew back in the 1930s still holds true today. Workers have the ability to influence their wages, benefits and working conditions when they’re unionized. There is real power in numbers and in solidarity. In fact, union meatpackers earn 15% higher wages than non-union meatpackers. 81% of union workers have job-related health coverage, while only 50% of non-union workers do—and union families pay 43% less for family coverage than nonunion families. It’s called the “union premium” And, when union workers raise the working and living standards in their community, other businesses follow suit. That’s why the more union members there are in this country, the better off everyone is. Throughout our history, when unions are strong, wages go up, health care coverage improves and pensions are strengthened. When unions are under attack, as they are today, we are all in danger – our jobs, our communities and our families.

We can build our union for power.

History shows that the more unionized meatpacking workers there are, and the more we stick together in solidarity—the more likely it is we can raise wages and conditions for ourselves—and across the packing, poultry, and food processing industries. Think about this—for those of us who work in a “Right to Work” state, our power at the bargaining table is measured by the number of union members in our plant. The fact is that workers in plants with more union members earn more money.

For those of us who work in a union shop state, our power at the bargaining table is determined by how many plants in our area is union vs. non-union. Each time we go to negotiate our contract, our company points to the non-union plant down the road—or across the state line—as competition.

If those plants were union, it would be a completely different story.

For example, Tyson workers have a union in 25 plants—but workers in another 45 plants don’t have union representation. Workers in those non-union plants don’t want to make less money, earn fewer benefits, or work in unsafe working conditions. But they do, because they don’t have a union. Sometimes, workers don’t have a union because their employer actively tries to keep the union out. Other workers haven’t tried to organize their plant because they simply don’t know the benefits.

If unionized meatpacking workers came together to organize those plants, we could really build power at the bargaining table. We could raise wages and working conditions for food workers across the whole industry. Together, we can do what our predecessors once did.

By uniting in unions we could:

  • Advocate for a reasonable pace of production and line speed, and ensure proper staffing to reduce on-the-job injuries.
  • Improve food safety by providing support for whistleblowers
  • Negotiate wages and benefits that pay the bills, let us raise our families, put our kids through school, and live the American Dream.
  • Stop abusive, exploitative, and disrespectful treatment of workers by management.
  • Take pride in our jobs, knowing we have a voice and a say in the decisions that impact us.