The Militant (logo) 
Vol.64/No.3      January 24, 2000 
Socialist meatpackers, farm activists meet  
ATLANTA—Socialists who work in the meatpacking industry met over the January 8-9 weekend in Atlanta to discuss their activities as part of the resistance of working people who are standing up to attacks on their union and working conditions.

A meeting of socialist workers who are involved in actions by fighting farmers took place concurrently. A joint session of the two meetings was held, given the interconnection between the struggles of farmers to keep their land and meatpackers, who face many of the same corporations as farmers do.

Most of the meatpackers at the meeting are members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). A number work in nonunion plants and seek, through joining with coworkers and broader struggles as they unfold, to win union organization down the road.

Over the past year, the number and geographic spread of socialists in this industry has grown, a fact that made the meeting more reflective of the developments in the industry and union, as well as of connections with struggles of other working people in the cities and countryside.

In a report to the joint meeting, James Harris said, "The resilience of farmers who are Black in the fight to keep their land against the concerted effort of lawyers, the Clinton administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and others is a sign of the times." Harris is the farm work director of the Socialist Workers Party and a member of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial, and Textile Employees (UNITE) in Atlanta.

The fight of these farmers is a prime example of the bottoming out of the retreat of the working-class movement, Harris said. While workers and farmers aren't winning more struggles right now, what's changed from previous years is that even out of stalemates and setbacks there are working people who reach out to others in solidarity and who are open to considering broader questions in working-class politics and reading communist books. This shifts the prospects and opportunities for the work of socialists in the unions and for recruitment to the Young Socialists and the party.

Saturday evening participants joined others, including several farmers building the January 17 march in Atlanta, for a forum entitled, "Capitalism's World Disorder and the Prospects for Socialism in the Twenty-First Century," given by Norton Sandler, a member of the SWP National Committee. Gladys Williams, a member of the South Georgia Vegetable Cooperative, introduced Sandler.  

Interest in socialist press

Francisco Pedrón, a UFCW member and meatpacker in Minnesota, gave a report to the meatpackers' meeting. He noted that while there is no broad social movement in packing, skirmishes and resistance abound. For example, his coworkers have purchased 90 copies of the Militant and Perspectiva Mundial in the recent period at the plant where he works.

This response is one indication of stirrings among packinghouse workers, who are paying for the eight-year economic expansion with "our bodies from the increasing line speed, long hours, and rate of injury."

Pedrón pointed out that "the willingness to fight is not limited to unionized meatpacking plants. There is no less political space in nonunion plants. When we start with our coworkers and act collectively, much is possible—from getting through probation successfully to responding to speedup."

He pointed out that the union bureaucracy is prostrate before the bosses' offensive. "Their political course was summed up in the policy of economic nationalism presented in Seattle at the protests against the World Trade Organization meeting," he said, "and it offers no way forward for workers. But the trade union officials don't even stand up to the bosses either in individual plants or against the bosses as a whole."

Pedrón pointed to the need to raise with workers the perspective of revolutionary struggle to put in power a government of workers and farmers.

Two commissions made up of members of the fraction presented reports to the January 9 morning session of the UFCW meeting. Harvey McArthur, from Chicago, reported for the commission on the campaign to sell Capitalism's World Disorder. McArthur described working with a coworker to place the book in the Chicago area and efforts by meatpackers in Des Moines, Iowa, who placed books in grocery stores where Spanish-speaking workers shop. He pointed to the special opportunity to sell the Spanish- and French-language editions of Capitalism's World Disorder, which will be available in March. He proposed to extend the campaign for three months, which was approved.

Amy Baxter, a meatpacker in a nonunion plant in Minnesota, reported for the factory committee commission. She opened the discussion by asking, "Do we function differently in nonunion plants?" Baxter pointed to a number of the challenges workers face, from whether to go to company socials and dinners that bosses attend, to how to resist individual negotiations with the boss around issues such as switching jobs and pay raises.

The possibilities to sell Spanish-language Pathfinder books was addressed by Bill Esquivel, a meatpacker in New York. He was part of a team that went to upstate New York where Mexican farmworkers have settled. After some hesitation, the team decided to visit a Spanish grocery store. The manager ended up deciding to take all the Spanish titles they had with them.

Norton Sandler said in the discussion that "the biggest challenge is to do work in the union and through the union structures. This is not easy in the UFCW with amalgamated locals and infrequent union meetings. But we can become competent and function in the union to carry out strike solidarity and other political work.

"In a nonunion plant the road to getting a union is by joining in the efforts and struggles of our coworkers. The union will grow out of the resistance," continued Sandler. "It is the same way the union will be built in a union shop. As we do this work we need to see how to bring the weight of the union to bear in strike solidarity and union battles."

Cecilia Ortega, a meatpacker from San Francisco, pointed to the fact that five members of the Young Socialists were present at the fraction meeting and the particular opportunities that exist for recruitment to the revolutionary movement.

Candace Williams, a meatpacker from Philadelphia, proposed that the meatpackers fraction initiate a team to the area in North Carolina where there is a giant Smithfield packinghouse plant to distribute socialist literature and talk to the workers about prospects for organizing a union. This proposal was passed.

The socialist workers also decided to turn their efforts towards building the January 17 farm protest in Atlanta among coworkers, farmers, and youth.

"There is an abundance of opportunities for revolutionaries to do political work in the countryside," said James Harris at the meeting of some 20 socialists active with farmers. The meeting discussed the party's political work among toilers in rural areas. Participants in the meeting included garment and textile workers, rail workers, airline workers, and members of the Young Socialists.

Harris pointed to the international crisis faced by tens of thousands of working farmers who are being squeezed by declining prices in the commodities they produce and soaring costs of production. Apple and other crop prices paid by agricultural monopolies to farmers are at the lowest level since the Great Depression.  

Falling farm income

Last year, net family farm income dropped to $11,000 from $62,000 in 1996, while the cost of farming increased by 12 percent over the last four years, Harris stated. The USDA estimated that total net farm income would drop by nearly 16 percent this year.

There is also a growing gap between the living conditions in urban centers and those in rural areas. The number of deaths in the countryside is increasing among children due to lack of health-care facilities. When clinics or hospitals close down in rural areas, people must drive hundreds of miles to get emergency medical care. Corporate dumping of toxic waste is a chronic problem, making the quality of life worse, Harris noted.

There are also fewer democratic rights, he said. In the small towns, "everyone knows your business" and authorities are "more likely to move on you" for standing up to repressive conditions.

Despite these conditions, the decline in living standards is fueling resistance among the rural toilers. Farmers become radicalized and start searching for allies and an explanation of the causes of this crisis, Harris said. A farmer involved in the protests against racial discrimination by the USDA, for example, purchased a copy of Capitalism's World Disorder. He said that before he read the book he did not understand how deep the problem facing working farmers is. Now he is thinking out how to explain to other farmers he works with the depth of the problem they face.

Harris said that other forces are also trying to gain a hearing among farmers, including ultrarightist figures like Lyndon LaRouche and Reform Party presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan. Communists must become familiar with and be able to answer Buchanan's "Family Farm Bill of Rights," he pointed out.

What working people in the countryside must do is fight capitalism, Harris stated. He pointed to the pamphlet by Russian revolution leader V.I. Lenin, To The Rural Poor, which presents a program to unite the working class with toilers in the countryside to fight the wealthy class. "Lenin explained that the rural poor are a necessity for there to be a class of rural rich," Harris remarked.

"Our consistent work with these fighters has opened up opportunities to discuss our farm program," said Harris. "The action called by the BFFA on January 17 is not just about the farm question. It can be brought into the labor movement and taken onto campuses. This action will be very attractive to young people and the thousands of farmers who are looking for a way to fight."

By reaching out to farmers and other working people in rural areas, Harris said, "communist workers can meet young people who want to fight the system which is bringing these conditions upon them. These young people will be interested in learning more about the Young Socialists and becoming part of an organized and disciplined communist movement."

Harris concluded his remarks by pointing to the upcoming trip to Cuba by farmers in the United States. They will be hosted by the National Association of Small Farmers.

Some of the farmers see the trip as a break from the past and are internationalizing their struggle. Ideas were discussed such as reaching out to Puerto Rican farmers on the island of Vieques and farmers in Britain. The trip to Cuba opens up more tours, and future trips by workers in the United States become more possible, Harris asserted.  
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