Dakota workers staged a seven-hour sit-down strike June 1 to demand that the line speed be decreased and that workers not be forced to work while injured. The company had steadily increased the number of cows being slaughtered during the previous six months.
The strike gave rapid momentum to the effort to bring the union back to this plant of 175 workers, as the company was forced to grant concessions on line speed. At the same time, the company threatened to eliminate medical benefits for the workers if the union-organizing effort was successful, as the bosses stepped up an in-plant propaganda campaign designed to intimidate the workers.
The union was decertified in this plant in 1992 after it failed to win a contract from the company. It had been voted in as the bargaining representative for the workers a year earlier.
The union-organizing drive is being strengthened by workers' actions to defend themselves against company attacks. On June 15 a supervisor fired Mauro Medina, a worker on the boning line, after Medina requested help to carry out a job he had not been trained for. The next morning three of his co-workers from the boning department approached management and demanded that he be returned to work. Management backed down and Medina was allowed to return to his job.
Another worker in the boning department, Samuel Farley, a supporter of the union-organizing effort, also came under attack. A supervisor kept moving Farley rapidly from job to job. He was eventually called into the Human Resources department office and kept there for more than two hours.
The next day Farley delivered a letter to the company demanding an end to the discrimination against him because he is Black and because he is a supporter of the union organizing effort. The company official grilled Farley for more than two hours again that day and requested he sign a company document absolving the company from responsibility for his harassment. Farley refused to do this and reiterated his demand that the discrimination against him cease.
Workers María Sánchez and Blanca Hidalgo are both being backed by defenders of the union in their efforts to force the company to grant them compensation pay for injuries suffered in the plant.
'Workers Voice' comes out
These incidents of workers' resistance to company harassment have been detailed in the Workers Voice, an in-plant newsletter being produced by supporters of Local 789's union-organizing effort. The pro-union newsletter is prepared in both Spanish and English. The big majority of the workforce is Latino, especially from Mexico.
A recent issue has a variety of short articles that deal with the challenges and opportunities of organizing the union. The articles include news of the election date being set, an announcement of a July 22 union meeting for workers at Dakota Premium Foods, and fights by workers to hold off company attacks and receive compensation pay for injuries. The newsletter has a photograph of the June 12 demonstration of some 200 Dakota workers and their supporters outside the Dakota Premium Foods plant.
The front page contains a cartoon depicting Dakota Premium Foods manager Steve Cortinas talking to a lawyer, with workers on the boning lines in the background. The caption quotes Cortinas telling the lawyer, "We have to make them believe that they can solve their problems by coming to management. If necessary, we'll get rid of a supervisor or two, there is never a lack of brown-nosers. Once the workers vote against the union, we can go back to our old ways."
Workers interviewed by this reporter say the Workers Voice is well received. A number of workers, along with officials from Local 789, pitch in to decide what will be in the articles. These workers and others then distribute it in the plant.
The company has stepped up its efforts against the union. On June 21, management called a brief meeting and then began distributing its own bilingual flyer attacking the union. Claiming to be a fact sheet, the company sheet claimed, "A signed [authorization] card can be used by the Union to call you out on strike."
"If you've already signed an authorization card, you have the right to ask the Union to return it," the company flyer added. Workers responded by producing a third issue of the Workers Voice to rebut the company's claims.
Titled, "Company sows confusion," the latest Workers Voice explains, "A large majority of the workers signed cards asking for representation.
"The cards can't 'put you out on strike,' only you can do that through a vote," the pro-union newsletter adds.
"On July 21, you will decide what is right for you.... Without the union we workers will have no collective voice," the newsletter continues. "We have no voice on the speed of the line, working conditions, and being forced to work while injured. Winning this union will give us that collective voice. For this reason, the company will stop at nothing to prevent and keep out the union, because it is not in the company's interests for us to have any control. Without the union the company is better able to sow divisions among us, pit us against each other and even buy some of us off."
Reaching out for support
Workers active in the union-organizing effort have been reaching out for support. On June 16, the first day of the hotel workers strike in the Twin Cities, several Dakota Premium workers visited the picket line at the Radisson South Hotel. They discussed the issues in both fights with 20 workers from the hotel who were picketing.
"You have the complete support of our union," they were told by Uriel Pérez, an organizer for Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Local 17, the union that is striking hotels in the Twin Cities. Another HERE organizer, Kyle Makarios, also voiced support.
The hotel workers union sent a contingent to participate in the June 12 rally of 200 organized by UFCW Local 789 outside the Dakota Foods plant.
The meat packers union march on June 12 received extensive coverage on local television, as well as articles in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Spanish-language La Prensa, broadening the discussion about the union-organizing effort among workers in Twin Cities factories in subsequent days.
Local 789 is appealing for support for the workers at Dakota Premium Foods. Among other means of reaching out is the local's web site, at www.ufcw789.org (see box on this page). To send messages of support or obtain more information, you can write Local 789 at 266 Hardman Ave., South St. Paul, MN 55075, fax a message to 651-451-8227, or e-mail the union at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom Fisher is a textile worker in Minnesota.
The following solidarity message in English and Spanish was sent to meat packers at Dakota Premium Foods in St. Paul, Minnesota, from 13 workers at a nonunion knitting and sewing plant in Miami.
To the meat packers at Dakota Premium
S. St. Paul, MN
We just learned about your struggle for better working conditions and wages and for organizing a union. We salute you and send you our solidarity.
We are workers at a garment factory in the Miami area. We face many of the same problems you do. The big majority here make minimum wage, or barely above, even after working three, five, or more than ten years for this company. We have no health coverage, paid vacations, or any other kind of benefits. And we face abuses of health coverage, paid vacations, or any other kind of benefits. And we face abuses of our dignity by the boss almost every day. There is no union at this factory.
Your fight encourages us to do the same here. We wish you victory.
Check out UFCW Local 789 web site
Supporters of the fight for a union by meat packers at Dakota Premium Foods in St. Paul, Minnesota, should check out the web site of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, at www.ufcw789.org.
A color photo of the June 12 "Labor March For Union Recognition" greets visitors to the site. A link for more information leads to feature articles on the meat packers' fight from the June 13 Pioneer Press and the June 19 Militant.
The text below the photo says in bold letters, "The workers pictured above took to the streets of South St. Paul to demand recognition of their Union! The Labor and Religious communities turned out in mass to support the workers of Dakota Premium. On behalf of the workers and the staff and members of UFCW Local 789, thank you to all of those who turned out to support our fight for worker justice. If you want to join these union brothers and sisters and become active in your workplace and your community, or would like to receive more information about the UFCW and the organizing campaign at Dakota Premium Foods, contact your Union Representative or e-mail us at email@example.com."