Minnesota meat packers resist attacks on union
Build, defend UFCW Local 789 at two slaughterhouses
BY AMY ROBERTS
ST. PAUL, Minnesota--Meat packers at two beef slaughterhouses owned by Rosen's Diversified Inc. are organizing to resist an antiunion offensive by the bosses.
The company has stepped up its campaign of intimidation and pressure against leaders of the union; started its own newspaper, Bull Notes, in both Spanish and English to counter the union's Workers' Voice that is produced by and distributed to workers at both plants; and has steadfastly refused to recognize the union representation election victory by workers at its Dakota Premium Foods plant in South St. Paul.
The nearly 500 workers here at Dakota Premium Foods (DPF) and at Long Prairie Packing (LPP), in Long Prairie, Minnesota, are members of Local 789 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). Rosen's Diversified is the seventh largest beef packing company in the United States.
This past July, workers at DPF voted to join the union 112 to 71, capping a seven-week organizing drive that began with a sit-down strike to protest conditions in the plant, especially the increase in line speed. A challenge to the elections by Rosen's Diversified has been heard by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The company alleged the union had agents working in the plant who intimidated and pressured workers into voting for the union. The NLRB held several hearings in late August and September but has yet to issue a ruling, which was to have been made within 14 days of the September 21 conclusion of testimony.
Long Prairie Packing has been organized by UFCW Local 789 for 12 years. Workers at Dakota Premium have sought to build on their union victory and strengthen their fight for a contract by establishing communication with workers in Long Prairie, much to the dismay of the bosses.
"With increased union activity by workers at LPP and the continuing fight at Dakota Premium Foods, the bosses have decided to try to push the union back," Local 789's union representative and organizer, Francisco Picado, told the Militant. For example, LPP management has moved to victimize the union stewards on the kill floor, suspending the chief shop steward and disciplining two others, placing them one warning away from suspension. According to the Workers' Voice, the local's newsletter for workers at the Long Prairie and South St. Paul plants, the only Spanish-speaking steward on the kill floor became a special target of the harassment campaign. Some 80 percent of the workforce at LPP speaks Spanish as their native language. Picado told the Militant this steward decided to resign his post as a result of the company's harassment.
In response to this broadside attack, the leadership of Local 789 has sought to extend the organization of workers in the plant as well as filing charges with the NLRB for unfair labor practices.
Issue No. 14 of the Workers' Voice states: "This is the first step, of as many as necessary, to make it clear to the management of this company that this union will do whatever it takes to defend its members and to make it possible for every worker in the plant to use the union to defend themselves."
The company justified the attacks by alleging it was fighting a problem with contamination. Under the subheading, "To eliminate contamination is in the interest of the Union," an article in the Workers' Voice explains that the problem with contamination could be solved without attacking the union.
"It is in the Union's interest to have safe products in the market; it is workers above all who consume them," it says. "Union members everywhere should point to the ways to eliminate contamination. However, lack of proper training, increased workload per worker, and ever increasing line speeds, are at the heart of the industries' increasing problems with contamination.
"What is really behind this company campaign is to punish workers who used their union to improve their conditions," the publication continues. "Do we work in a safe environment and receive proper care for our injuries? Can we go to the bathroom when we are on the line? Are we paid for the time we work over at the end of the shift? Is the line speed at a safe pace? Is the supervisor treating workers with respect and dignity? Are there any workers who are discriminated? These are the questions that the company wants avoided and ignored as they sweet-talk folks into going to management. 'Keep the union out of it!' is the message."
Picado reports workers at LPP and at DPF "welcomed this issue of the Workers' Voice. Groups of workers are engaging in discussion on how to organize to push back the attacks. The company is also attempting to take away the contractual right to take off the opening days of hunting season, which we discussed was another attack on the union."
Company refuses to recognize union
Rosen's Diversified is making it clear it intends to not recognize the union at Dakota Premium Foods and is stepping up its offensive against leaders of the union organizing drive.
Miguel Olvera, a leader of the fight in DPF, was suspended on an attendance violation after he was outspoken at a line meeting. Samuel Farley, also a veteran of the organizing drive, was disqualified for a third time on a line job.
In both cases delegations of workers went to the office to defend them. Workers report company vice president Estevan Cortinas refused to "talk to a group," meaning the union. "This is a personal matter concerning an individual," he asserted. "It is not up for public discussion," he reportedly stated. In the case of Farley the company told him he could not have "preferential treatment" and that he would have to have enough seniority to be put back on one of the boning lines.
Other moves by the company include putting up postings for some jobs while filling other jobs with new hires, and insisting that workers take their complaints to the "communications committee," a company setup aimed at circumventing the union. The company hopes this will put an end to workers organizing delegations to meet with the bosses as part of defending co-workers who have been victimized.
For example, one young worker on the kill floor injured his back while doing a heavy job for which he says he had not been properly trained. He was then sent to see a company doctor without a translator. Upon his return the supervisor put him on a job that required heavy lifting, even though the doctor's note specified that he wasn't supposed to.
In response, a group of workers from the cut floor mobilized during a lunch break to demand he have the right to see a doctor with a translator, forcing the company to put the worker on a light-duty job. Stopping a company practice of forcing workers to continue a job while injured was one of the goals of the sit-down strike in June.
The company is also "pushing to increase production," said Josť Perez. "Yesterday we killed 754 cows in less than 10 hours. A while back we used to work 12 or 13 Saturdays at this time of year. But in the last couple of years it has been cut to 10. This winter might even be less. This is because they are getting more out of us every day. There is tension. They are on top of us all the time, waiting for you to make a mistake to reprimand you."
Perez also said pro-union workers are seeking to win a large number of new hires to the union. "Many have never been in a union and many arrived from Mexico only recently. They are happy to be making a little more money but they are also getting hurt. We have to find ways to involve them in the fight for the union."
Workers from Dakota Premium joined a Membership Appreciation night at the UFCW Local 789 November 6, where they were able to discuss their fight with other workers in the local. At a meeting following the event they decided to call a general membership meeting for the following Thursday.
Miguel Olvera from the boning department said union supporters plan to encourage participation in the meeting. "A lot of people are waiting for a ruling from the NLRB and are disappointed that there isn't one yet. But we just have to point out what the union is doing and what the union has done up to now," he stated. Samuel Farley told the Militant that with the Worker's Voice "being distributed in both plants, the prospects for increased collaboration between workers in the two plants has grown dramatically."
Amy Roberts is a member of UFCW Local 789 at Dakota Premium Foods.