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.”