BY CHRIS HOEPPNER AND WILLIE REID
CORYDON, Indiana - "Tyson needs to treat people with respect," said Kim Stewart, who has worked at the poultry plant here for 11 years. "I've been here through three contract periods and two different owners. If your child is ill, you shouldn't have to go through the harassment they put you through to just get the message and the time off you need to care for your child."
Jessica McCormack, who has worked here five years, added, "Supervisors yell at people, they're just disrespectful. We won't put up with it."
More than 300 poultry workers here went on strike against Tyson Foods, the country's largest poultry processor, January 3. Most of the strikers, who are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 227, are women. Wages for production work "top out" at $8.10 an hour, for those who have substantial seniority. The strikers are resisting proposed takeaways that include ending paid breaks, reducing overtime pay and bereavement leave, and a 60 percent increase in health insurance costs. "They didn't think we would last," Stewart said, "because it was cold and windy. But we work in cold temperatures and we stood right out here to let them know we could."
Mike Flynn, a representative of Local 227, listed some of the ways they are preparing for a long fight. "Every Thursday food is distributed to the strikers. We have established a hardship fund to help strikers with their utility bills and other necessities. Friday and Saturday we organize weekly boycott activities at stores to urge people not to buy Tyson products." A building near the site is being prepared for meetings and a kitchen.
Jim Horn, a UFCW member at the Colgate plant in Jeffersonville, Kentucky, saw the notice about the strike at Tyson posted on his union bulletin board. He joined the picket line and brought a truckload of firewood for the burn barrels. Horn plans to get some of the strikers to explain the issues in their fight at his union meeting later in January.
Strikers said workers at a car parts plant close by took up a collection for the strike. One benefit for strikers and their families was a chili dinner sponsored by the UFCW and the United Auto Workers January 18.
As these correspondents distributed the Militant at the picket line, we asked about support from farmers. The lead article on the front page about the Black farmers' lawsuit against decades of discrimination prompted strikers Gayle Paxton and Elaina Willis to help contact Mattie Mack.
Mattie and Bill Mack are Black farmers in Brandenburg, Kentucky, which is just across the Ohio River, about 15 miles from the Tyson plant. Mattie is well-known for her outspoken views and activities on farm issues.
"We're familiar with Tyson and some of the people," she explained. "In fact one of the workers there is one of the best tobacco strippers around. Several worked over here to raise money in anticipation of the strike. I'm going on the local radio station in the next few days. I'll take the opportunity to urge people to support their strike for justice." Mattie and Bill Mack took the union facts sheets to make sure they had the accurate information from the union. Bill added, "It's just not right to cut their break time and not give them a living wage, when everyone knows Tyson makes big money."
They described in detail the discrimination they have faced since they bought the farm in 1964 and how they had to persevere to keep it. Their 100-acre farm includes six acres of tobacco and a few acres of corn and hay for 100 head of cattle and some hogs.
"We got 10 cents a pound the last time we brought hogs to the market," Bill Mack said. "So I just slaughtered some, smoked the hams, and hung them up for home use. I'll wait until the price rises before I go back. I don't know what I'll do with the next lot."
Bill retired three years ago from a local chemical plant, a job he finally got as the result of the gains of the civil rights movement. He always worked to support the farm because racist practices made it difficult to get loans. Mattie kept the farm going, raised a large family, and has been active in various farm organizations. She is part of the Black farmers' class-action lawsuit against the USDA and is a leader of the Minority Farmers of Mead County.
She expressed this opinion on the proposed government settlement of the lawsuit. "While I could live with the $50,000 from the USDA," Mattie pointed out, "I know too many who have lost their farms over the years or are just hanging on. This is just a drop in the bucket and won't make up for what they've been through. So it's not right and I'm willing to speak out about it."
To contact UFCW Local 227 call 1-800-443-5191, extension 115 and 123. Donations can be sent to the Strike Assistance Fund, c/o UFCW Local 227, 7902 Old Minors Lane, Louisville, KY 40219.
Willie Reid is a member of the United Auto Workers. Chris Hoeppner is a member of the UFCW.
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