BY NORTON SANDLER
SAN FRANCISCO - Workers at the sprawling Foster Farms poultry plant in Livingston, 113 miles from San Francisco, returned to their jobs October 27. They had voted by a 3-to-1 margin four days earlier to approve a five-year contract, ending their 17-day strike.
The 2,200 members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1288 at the largest U.S. poultry slaughtering plant rejected the company's "best and final offer" October 6. They had also voted down the company's initial proposal on September 28. The company was demanding that the UFCW members accept a total of 65 cents an hour in pay raises over a five-year contract.
In addition, Foster Farms management was trying to force the workers to join the company's own Health Maintenance Organization (HMO) by increasing monthly family medical co-payments from $20 to $70 for workers who chose to stay with a plan that allowed them to select their own doctor (PPO). Foster Farms management also demanded to raise the deductible limit families who are part of PPO's have to pay before the company paid benefits go into effect to $750 a year, a 43 percent increase. Many workers fought to maintain the right to go to a physician of their own choosing without the steep increase in what they have to pay out of their own pockets.
Some 90 percent of the union members immigrated to the United States from either Latin America or from Punjab, India. A significant number are also from Southeast Asia.
Management tried to keep the plant running throughout the strike and threatened to bring in permanent replacements. On October 21, the company announced that they were presenting the union members with a retooled offer. "This is the company's one final effort to see if we can stop this from becoming very long, protracted, and painful for everybody," said Foster Farms spokesperson Jay Jory.
Jory said the company would hold off on "permanently replacing" the workers until October 27. The next day the union officials were presented with the redrafted offer.
Company officials campaigned to bludgeon the workers into accepting it by demanding that a vote take place without "intimidation." They claimed that angry, screaming workers outside the voting site had led to the previous contract being rejected.
Local 1288 president Don Hunsucker reiterated the company's assertions, telling the Modesto Bee that the union would not tolerate intimidation and would have the federal mediator who participated in negotiations supervise the election. "We were extremely shocked to see that kind of thing go on outside the hall," said Hunsucker, "and we're not going to have people standing around screaming and threatening people." UFCW Local 1288 has its offices in Fresno, some 60 miles from Livingston.
Unionists interviewed by the Bee adamantly denied that intimidation took place at the October 6 voting.
With the contract approved on October 23 union members received a $1,000 bonus when they returned to work and 70 cents an hour in pay raises over the five years. This means that most workers will top out at $8.72 an hour in the year 2002.
Union members have an option of receiving either a $500 bonus or 10 cents an hour in raises in the third year of the contract.
Over the five years those in PPO's will have their monthly charge increased from $10 to $30 for an individual and from $20 to $40 for a family. The deductibles will rise to $750 a year for families covered by PPO's.
As federal mediators were counting the votes on the contract, hundreds of workers lined barricades set up by the cops outside the hall where the balloting took place.
In a telephone interview with the Militant, union member Isabel Mendoza said she voted against the contract. "The company told so many lies. Like they were operating at 50 to 60 percent capacity. But," Mendoza said, "the first day back we threw out lots of spoiled meat. Ten thousand pounds of legs alone.
"We are proud that we fought, we showed that we can do it," she explained. "We stayed out there two weeks strong. The company says 200 crossed, but we doubt it.
"We didn't get the support we should have from the union. The union representative said, `You will lose your jobs, the lawyer said we will be replaced.' Right before the vote they gave us the paperwork [contract summary]. And we didn't get a chance to discuss it," she added.
"I am frustrated that the laws work for the rich companies. What rights do we have? Just because we don't have money," Mendoza said, adding, "We'll be stronger next time, in five years we'll be better prepared."
"We won the strike," Ross Parcel told the Militant. Parcel said he voted for the contract because, "We got the company to come down on the medical benefits and that is what most of us were concerned with. I've worked here for 23 years and never thought I'd live to see the solidarity we had on that line." Parcel said the Livingston strike will have a big impact on the upcoming negotiations at the Foster Farms plant in Fresno. "If they are smart," Parcels stated, "they'll go out on strike too if the company tries to hand them this same stuff."
Norton Sandler is a member of International Association of Machinists Local 1781. Barbara Bowman, a member of United Transportation Local 1732, contributed to this article.
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