Meat packers refute bosses' claims at hearing
BY BECKY ELLIS
MINNEAPOLIS--At an ongoing hearing of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789 began their testimony in defense of their union September 5.
The hearing is being held because the owners of Dakota Premium Foods filed a challenge to a July 21 union representation election in which the meat packers at the plant voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) by a decisive margin. Dakota Premium is a beef slaughterhouse in South St. Paul, Minnesota, with a workforce of more than 200 meat packers, mostly Spanish-speaking immigrants.
The company presented its case over several days beginning August 28. It claimed the union pressured meat packers to vote for the UFCW by organizing a "ruckus" outside the voting area and other alleged intimidation tactics.
Miguel Olvera, a worker in the boning department, and José Flores, who works on the kill floor, opened up the day's testimony on behalf of the union. Both were observers for the UFCW during the election. They spent the entire afternoon at the voting area. Each testified that, while there were a number of workers outside the voting area in the company lunchroom, they had heard no loud noises. Olvera said he heard one voice say "Sí se puede." This expression in Spanish translates into English as, "Yes, we can." It is a popular expression among pro-union workers in the plant and is the principal slogan of workers fighting the oppressive conditions in the factory. Flores said he didn't hear that chant.
Samuel Farley, another worker from the boning area, testified that he had been at the end of a long line in the hallway waiting to vote that afternoon. He said he heard no one say "Sí se puede."
Olvera and Farley have been central leaders of the fight to win union recognition at Dakota Premium Foods since the workers there sat down in the company cafeteria June 1 and refused to work until the company met with them about the speed of the line. The seven-hour strike occurred in response to the company speeding up the rate of production from 450 cattle in 10 hours to 700 cattle in less than eight hours, as well as company practices such as forcing people to work while injured.
Both workers testified they had attended most of the meetings of the organizing committee, which meets several times a week at the union hall.
Olvera said there had been no discussions in those meetings about chanting "Sí se puede." Farley testified that "decisions were made collectively" and that workers on the committee had not been given orders or instructions by union officials. "Sometimes there's not even a union officer around when we're meeting," he continued.
False charge of paid votes
Dakota Premium also charges that union "agents" offered to pay workers $10,000 each to vote for the union. In earlier testimony, a pro-company worker asserted that her brother-in-law, a kill floor worker at the plant, had told family members that immigrant workers could get $10,000 and a two-year work permit by voting for the union.
On September 4, Obdulia Flores, the worker's wife, and Mercedes de la Cruz, his sister-in-law, testified to refute that charge. According to the two women, there had been a family picnic and there had been a discussion and disagreement about a car--but no discussion about the union organizing drive.
Toward the end of Flores's testimony, company lawyers asked her why her attorney had sent a letter to the company. She explained that before the election her son, a former worker in the plant, was insulted and walked out of the plant. "Company managers thought he was passing out union material. They instructed the guards to escort him off the job site, as they yelled and insulted him." He had been passing out wedding invitations.
When asked why her son no longer works in the plant, Flores answered, "The company lowered his wages and expected him to do the same job in less time. He didn't want to work like that for a lower salary."
Lisa Jordan, a professor at the University of Minnesota, testified that she had been present at the first meeting of the union organizing committee. It was at this meeting that the union lawyer explained to the largely immigrant workforce that they need not fear reprisals from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) as a result of the drive for a union. He pointed to the recent victory by seven Mexican-born workers who had been part of a successful union organizing effort at Holiday Inn Express in Minneapolis. The INS had detained these workers but, under public pressure, was compelled to release them and to assert its neutrality while an organizing fight was in place. The victimized Holiday Inn Express workers ended up winning a two-year work permit.
At the conclusion of the testimony the hearing officer for the NLRB agreed to a motion by company lawyers to continue the proceedings after September 21, in order to get the testimony of a worker in the boning department who is on vacation in Mexico. The NLRB is supposed to issue a ruling on the challenge by the company 14 days after the conclusion of the hearing.
Lawyers for the company have made repeated motions to obtain the membership list of the union in-plant leadership committee that has arisen in the struggle there. To date the judge has refused these motions. The judge has also refused a motion to deny the right of Local 789 president William Pearson to wear a T-shirt saying "Sí se puede."
Company continues harassment
While the hearings have been taking place, the bosses have continued their pressure on workers in the plant. The company, for example, decertified Samuel Farley from his position on the boning line after making the operation extremely difficult for one person to do. They currently have him working on the Wizard knife away from the center of the boning area. They watch him especially closely and carry out checks on his work that they have not carried out on other workers in that position.
The company continues to pressure workers who have been injured to not report their injuries and to continue working. According to members of the leadership committee in the plant, workers in the kill department at their recent union meeting discussed the fact that three workers have been injured and never reported their injuries.
One worker in the cooler, who tore muscles in his shoulder and arm on one side of his body, continues to work using his shoulder and arm on the other side. The job of workers in the cooler involves pushing the carcasses of several cattle at the same time on overhead rails to positions in the cooler to be refrigerated overnight, in order to be ready for the boning operations the following day.