February 11, 2012
Early in November of 2011, the UFCW hosted the IUF Global Meat Conference in Omaha, Nebraska. The IUF is a global union of meat and food workers
The global meat market is an industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and it is currently dominated by a few companies whose power and reach are growing year after year. With the consolidation of these companies, workers in meat plants face both local and global challenges. We are all familiar with local challenges: inadequate crewing at higher line speeds, disregard for ergonomics and safety, improper handling of hazardous materials like ammonia, wage and benefits cuts, etc.
Globalization brings its own set of challenges. As companies compete in global markets, they devise new systems and strategies to increase profits and reduce costs. These systems are often designed in corporate offices, far away from the plants. Engineers arrive at plants with blueprints and equipment; they install new machines and systems, but their involvement stops once the installation is done.
“Come Friday at 3:30 in the afternoon, these engineers are gone,” says Dan Riesner, a UFCW steward from Local 222 who works a combined job at the Gelita plant in Iowa. “When management comes back and does its inspection tour on Monday morning, they see that things are working, but they don’t really understand the amount of effort and the number of people it took to keep things running during the weekend, once the engineers left. There is no support and no follow-through. They leave us holding the bag and these changes have a very negative effect on job performance.”
Unionized workers in the U.S. have the protection of good contracts and government agencies such as the NLRB, but workers in other countries have to deal with indifferent governments and abusive managers. When global companies promote these managers and relocate them for new positions in the U.S., our rights are in jeopardy. These managers are used to abusing workers and ignoring safety concerns. Not only that, they are used to getting away with it. So once they are relocated to our plants, they will try to impose their practices on our brothers and sisters.
But in a global market information and opportunities flow both ways. As Dan explains, “when workers from other countries reach our plants, we have the opportunity to educate them and share the values of our own labor movement. Once they experience the difference in working conditions in our plants, we should encourage them to share with their own families abroad. If companies are going to import their abusive practices, we should be able to export our values.”
January 31, 2012
Early in November of 2011, the UFCW hosted a Global Meat Conference for meat packing workers from all over the world in Omaha, Nebraska. The two-day conference focused on the challenges workers face with the growth and consolidation of international meat companies like JBS and Cargill.
Thanks to consolidation and globalization, just a handful of companies dominate this billion dollar industry, and their power is growing year after year. That means challenges for workers who want to share in the success of their companies – whether those workers are in the U.S., Brazil, Japan or any other country.
Meat packing and food processing workers face the same basic challenges all over the world: inadequate crewing, disregard for ergonomics and safety, improper handling of hazardous materials like ammonia, downward pressure on wages and benefits, and a lack of dignity on the job.
Unfortunately, globalization and consolidation don’t necessarily raise standards for workers – the opposite is often true. For instance, at the Global Meat Conference, workers from all over the world met each other to speak and compare working conditions. They discovered that although they may share the same employer or parent company, their working conditions could be markedly different. For instance, workers from the U.S. or Australia may have strong union contracts, but workers in other countries are systematically denied bathroom breaks, or forced to work for weeks without a day off. They also learned that companies in every corner of the globe work to systematically deny workers who want a voice on the job from joining together with their co-workers in a union.
If companies like JBS, Tyson, and Cargill are global in their scope, our union must act globally, too. That is why UFCW members are communicating and coordinating with workers who belong to other meat packing unions around the world. We are routinely meeting; sharing information and developments; and coordinating on contract language that prevents exploitative or dangerous practices. These are effective ways to build the power that lets us negotiate better contracts and raise the working and living standards for everyone who works in this industry – both in the U.S. and abroad.
Dan Riesner is a UFCW steward from Local 222 in Iowa who works at the Gelita plant in Sergeant Bluff. He is tasked with the maceration of beef bones in acid, and assigned to the operation of a wash tank. The experience meeting workers in his industry from all over the globe really drove home to him how important it is for workers to band together, even across international borders.
“By sharing information with each other, union workers can learn about strategies and tactics that are effective in pressuring companies to come to the table and agree to fair, respectful working conditions,” Riesner said.
“It’s been a real eye-opener. Our strong union contracts mean we have it pretty good here in the U.S., comparatively, but we can’t take it for granted. If we don’t want consolidation and globalization to bite us – we need to kick up our efforts to organize and to stick together when we bargain.”
January 10, 2012
Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was published in 1906, sparking a public outcry around safety issues in the meatpacking industry. That’s how long the industry has been infamous for its hazardous working conditions.
The good news is, according to new reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), workplace safety in the meatpacking industry is steadily improving, with injury and illness rates for full-time workers on the decline.
The bad news is, in comparison to other industrial and manufacturing sectors, meatpacking and poultry processing are still among the most dangerous. Food manufacturing workers are twice as likely to experience injuries and illnesses than industrial and manufacturing workers as a whole. The meatpacking industry also ranks high for severe injury and illness cases – meaning those that cause workers to miss days at work or those that necessitate restricted work activities or even job transfers. Nationally, the poultry industry has the fifth-highest rate of worker illness across all industries.
Though progress has been made on worker safety in the meatpacking and poultry industries, we must understand what the numbers really mean, and make sure we are addressing issues that really make a difference in improving safety and health in these industries.
Some in the meat industry, like the trade association (read: lobbying outfit) American Meat Institute, are quick to highlight improvement using data that does not reflect the most dangerous jobs in the industry. That’s a slippery slope – and one that risks obscuring the truth on safety for the sake of profit-margin. The truth is, there is some doubt about the accuracy of the BLS numbers themselves. Studies conducted by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conclude that both BLS and OSHA miss from 20 percent to as much as 50 percent of the nation’s workplace injuries. A number of factors can cause this kind of under-reporting: workers sometimes don’t report injuries because of fears surrounding their immigration status and retaliation by their employers; employers are motivated to under-count injuries in order to win safety awards, and managers are incentivized by low-injury bonuses; and finally, some employers have instituted programs requiring workers who report injuries or accidents to undergo drug testing – adding additional risk to reporting.
For all these reasons, we must not let a modest increase in overall workplace safety lull us into a false sense of security when it comes to the meatpacking and poultry processing industries. We must continue to strive for better and safer workplaces for all meatpacking and poultry processing workers – and for collective bargaining agreements as well as stronger regulations that make it safe for all workers to report hazards and injuries.
December 11, 2009
Once the election results were posted, Gene Muff was relieved and happy. He knew it was a time to celebrate, because change was coming to his plant.
Muff, a member of UFCW Local 271, works at an Americold Logistics plant in Crete, Nebraska. Last summer, workers at his plant voted overwhelmingly to ratify their first ever union contract, which provides them with solid wages and benefit increases.
Muff has been involved with the UFCW since the beginning of the organizing campaign.
“I told my coworkers we needed to join the union so we would get better treatment at the plant. That when we are united we are stronger, so that way they couldn’t bully us around anymore,” he said.
After workers voted in favor of having union representation, Muff joined the bargaining committee. With the help of the UFCW, workers at the plant fought to get the best possible contract.
“During our contract negotiations, safety was a big issue, hours were a big issue,” Muff said. “We had to bargain for better wages and benefits.”
Muff explained that negotiations were difficult since “the company was very hardheaded throughout the first year. Afterwards, the company realized we weren’t going to give up. Then, they got down to business.”
With unity, strength and fortitude, workers at Americold negotiated a good first contract.
“When we ratified the contract my coworkers were very happy,” said Muff.
“When they saw the final contract for the first time, they realized that the entire wait was worth it. It was worth standing together and standing up to the company, because we made our lives much better.”
Now workers at Americold are part of the more than 250,000 workers in the poultry and meatpacking industries nationwide who have a union contract with the UFCW.
“This contract gives us wages that protect full-time, family-supporting jobs in our community,” Muff said.
The new Americold contract includes:
- Average wage increases of $1.44/hr for the first year and an additional 30 cents per hour for the next four years;
- A formal system to resolve workplace issues;
- Time and a half pay for holiday work;
- Night shift premium wages;
- Affordable family health coverage;
- Job advancement opportunities based on seniority; and,
- Funeral leave and paid vacation benefits.
“We got lower costs for health care. We got guaranteed wage increases. Now we’re able to stand up as one, and have a strong voice when we need to talk to management,” he said.
Muff said they owe this contract to the support they received from all the UFCW members across the country.
“I believe everyone in our local and in the UFCW was behind me and my fellow workers the whole time,” he said. “When we stand together we can make a very big difference.”
He added that workers at Americold support workers at other plants who are at the bargaining table. He had some advice for them:
“I would like to tell other workers who are trying to get their first contract that they should stick with it. The more you stand together the stronger you are and the better it is going to be in the long run. Your company might try to pull all different kinds of tactics on you, to make you feel like you made a bad decision in joining the union, but it’s worth it, because it can only make your life better.”
April 8, 2008
Luis Rosiles, a Tyson Foods worker and steward for Local 1546, has found his calling as an organizer in training for the UFCW’s Heartland Campaign. Rosiles is part of a coordinated effort to target thousands of non-union packing and processing workers in the Midwest who need a voice on the job. The new campaign is serving as a training ground for organizers like Rosiles, and the UFCW hopes to use the Heartland Campaign as a model for other UFCW organizers across the country.
Rosiles is on leave from his job as a worker at the Tyson Foods plant in Joslin, Illinois, where he served as a steward for Local 1546. As a steward, Rosiles served as a significant link and conduit of information between union leadership and the workers at the Tyson Foods plant in Joslin, and had the advantage of knowing many of his fellow workers. His new role as an organizer in the state of Nebraska presents the challenge of meeting and connecting with workers he has never met before and who may not be familiar with the benefits of joining a union.
“Some have a little bit of knowledge, some don’t,” said Rosiles. “That’s what drives me—winning campaigns and helping people be united at work.
The changing demographics of the packing and processing industries have also posed a challenge for Rosiles, and many of the plants that he is working with in Nebraska have attracted immigrant workers from around the world. Many of the immigrant workers he has approached are afraid of losing their jobs or unsure of their rights as workers in the U.S. To counter that fear and uncertainty, Rosiles and other organizers have made a point to connect with workers outside of the workplace by visiting their places of worship and even their homes to show that the union is part of the larger community.
Rosiles believes that his experience as a steward has helped him hone his skills as an organizer, and encourages other UFCW stewards to get involved with organizing campaigns such as the Heartland Campaign in the Midwest.
“We need more leadership and people getting involved in plants,” said Rosiles. “That’s what makes a union strong.”
For more information about the UFCW’s effort to provide workers with better wages and benefits in America’s Heartland and around the country, visit www.fairnessforfoodworkers.org.