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Our Companies are Global – Unions Must Act Globally

 

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.”

 

 

Power in Numbers

 

As stewards, we understand that our ability to negotiate with our employers comes from the power of our numbers. When more of us stick together and stand up for our rights, our voice is stronger and workers have more strength at the bargaining table to negotiate wages, benefits, and working conditions.

 

We know that power in numbers is more than just a union adage — it’s actually reflected in our wages and benefits. On average, union meatpacking workers make 15% more than nonunion meatpacking workers. And in socalled right-to-work states, where workers don’t automatically belong to our union, average pay is 10% less than in other union plants. Wages in these types of plants correlate with membership: fewer members mean lower wages. Fortunately, the correlation works both ways: with more union members, workers earn higher wages. And when workers in one plant join a union, that tends to raise the bar on wages and working conditions not just for themselves — but for workers in nearby plants that compete for the same pool of employees.
That’s why it’s important to all meat packing and food processing workers that more people are joining our union. During October and November, nearly 4,000 workers who work for National Beef in Dodge City, Kansas, Farmland Foods in Carroll,  Iowa, Nebraska Prime in Hastings, Nebraska, and JBS in Plainwell, Michigan voted to join the UFCW for a union voice on the job.

 

These new members will give each and every one of us a stronger voice when we bring our concerns to the companies and it will force management to really listen to workers. When companies know that they are dealing with a small number of workers, it’s easier to ignore worker requests at the bargaining table and disregard safety and dignity on the job.
Clemente Torres, a steward and a 9-year veteran at the Cargill meatpacking plant in Dodge City, Kansas knows this well. He works across the street from the National Beef plant where workers just voted to join his union, and he played a key role in organizing the workers there. “In my 9 years as steward I’ve seen our membership increase because workers can see what being united can do. Many Cargill workers worked at National Beef previously, or have relatives or spouses working there now. They understand the real difference is the power workers have during negotiations. If we are a stronger union with more members, we will be able to negotiate better benefits,” Torres says. “National Beef andCargill are Dodge City’s biggest employers. Now that workers in both places are union members, we have thousands of workers speaking together with one voice to raise the bar for working standards in the whole community.”
For workers, our bargaining power is measured two ways: by the number of union members in our individual plants, and by the number of union members in the entire meatpacking and food processing industry. If you work for a union company that operates non-union plants, talk to your co-workers about how non union operations bring your wages down. And ask your manager why your company insists on operating non-union.
If new workers at your plant don’t automatically become UFCW members, tell them you belong to the UFCW and explain to them that the company doesn’t simply provide better wages, benefits, and vacation days but they’re a result of bargaining with workers— union members like yourself.

Stewards: Keeping Our Workplace Safe

 

Many UFCW members in meatpacking, poultry and food processing plants may not be aware that they work around anhydrous ammonia – a highly hazardous chemical that could trigger an evacuation of their plant as well as the surrounding community.

 
Under OSHA’s Process Safety Management Standard, workers and their representatives have special rights to action and information in every facility with over 10,000 pounds of ammonia. Most plants that have to cool large storage or production areas use well over 10,000 pounds in their ammonia refrigeration systems.

 

 
Since an ammonia release could affect workers in any area of the plant, stewards can benefit from a basic knowledge of the hazards of ammonia and the steps the employer must take to protect workers.

 

 
The Process Safety Management Standard gives stewards the right to ALL information the company has about their ammonia refrigeration system. The company also has to have a system in place for workers to express their concerns and to receive responses about those concerns.

 

 
“Anhydrous ammonia is a deadly material,” said Jeff Dillener, a steward at Cargill and member of UFCW Local 230 in Ottumwa, Iowa. “As a UFCW steward, I have been trained to follow exact procedures in handling this material so that I can keep my fellow workers safe from harm.”

 

 
Every three years, the company has to conduct an audit of their compliance with the Process Safety Management regulations. Stewards can request to see the recommendations of the past two audits. If the company is carrying over the same recommendations from one audit to the next, that’s a good indication that they are not taking their own Process Safety Management program seriously.

 

 
The regulations for highly hazardous chemicals are different from the general health and safety regulations for regular production operations. One of the big differences is that breakdowns are not acceptable in ammonia refrigeration systems. Components of the ammonia refrigeration system must be replaced BEFORE they reach their breaking point! Every component of an ammonia refrigeration system (including the miles of piping on the roof) should have an estimated life cycle and a scheduled replacement date. This system of fixing things before they break is called Mechanical Integrity. Since ammonia refrigeration systems are closed systems, the ammonia never should get out of the system into the air. A leak or a release is an indication that the system is not being maintained the way the law requires it to be.

 
An important provision of the Process Safety Management Standard is the requirement for the company to think through changes to the system BEFORE they make those changes. They must document this process, which is called Management of Change. OSHA has made it very clear that personnel changes, such as changes in staffing levels, hours, outsourcing and training, that have an impact on the ammonia refrigeration system must go through the Management of Change process. Members can ask to be part of this process and weigh in on the possible consequences of the change being considered. This is a way for workers to fight dangerous reductions in Refrigeration Technician staffing levels or dangerous increases in mandatory overtime. Contact the UFCW Health and Safety Office at (202) 223-3111 for information about training.