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Meat packers in Nebraska step up union organizing
Contracts won at ConAgra; Nebraska Beef vote set for August 16
BY DONALD REEDY
AND NORM GREGORY
OMAHA, Nebraska--Meat packers here are involved in a number of struggles to win union recognition at the giant packinghouses that are central to the region's economy. Recent contract victories at two ConAgra plants have bolstered the fight by workers at Nebraska Beef, where a union representation vote is scheduled for August 16.
The election will decide whether United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 271 will represent the slaughter-house's nearly 1,000 production workers, the large majority of whom are immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries. There are also significant numbers of African-Americans and workers from the Sudan and countries in Asia at the plant.
Working people in Argentina |
Unemployed workers and state employees block bridge on the national highway in Nequén, in the south of Argentina. Coordinated actions by unionists, unemployed workers, farmers, retirees, and students took place throughout Argentina August 7–8. They protested the move by the De la Rúa government to slash retirement pensions and state employees' wages by 13 percent to continue payments on Argentina's $130 billion debt. Working people organized highway blockades, strikes, tractorcades, teach-ins, and marches. Some 8,000 workers rallied in Neuquén, joined by flower growers driving 100 tractors. In Salta in the north, workers demanded the release of five piqueteros (protesting jobless workers).
UFCW organizers greeted Nebraska Beef workers as they streamed out of the plant August 2 with a leaflet announcing the winning of a first contract at ConAgra's Cudahy plant in South Omaha. The three-year pact, which covers 160 workers newly organized into UFCW Local 271, provides for an immediate wage increase of 45 cents an hour and a total of $1 an hour over the three years. Over the previous 11 years, workers in the plant had received wage increases totaling only $1 an hour. Workers will now start at $11.45 an hour.
For the first time employees will receive prescription, vision, and dental coverage in their medical plan at a greatly reduced cost. In addition, other benefits include a job bid ding system by seniority and a retirement plan.
Maintenance workers at ConAgra's Northern States Beef, also located in South Omaha, ratified their first contract July 8. In addition to an immediate 50 cents an hour increase, the three-year pact provides for annual wage increases, night shift premium pay of $2 an hour, and improvements in vacation pay and other benefits.
Workers at the Cudahy and Northern States Beef factories waged hard-fought union organizing battles as part of UFCW Local 271's yearlong drive to organize some 4,000 packinghouse workers in South Omaha. Workers voted in the uni
on at the Cudahy plant, but at Northern States Beef only the maintenance workers cast a majority of their ballots for the UFCW. The contract victories at the two plants have given renewed momentum to further organizing efforts, especially at Nebraska Beef.
Bringing experiences to bear
Tiberio Chavez, a maintenance worker at Northern States Beef and a leader of the bargaining committee there, has been attending organizing committee meetings of workers from Nebraska Beef. Chavez and workers from the Cudahy plant are bringing their union experiences to bear in the struggle to organize Nebraska Beef.
"If the workers at Nebraska Beef win, it will mean that they have a voice and can secure better wages and working conditions," he said. "If they win, it will strengthen all of us and help all of us make improvements in our conditions."
Chavez said the production workers from his plant are playing an important role at the Nebraska organizing meetings. "We faced the same lies, intimidation, and harassment that the Nebraska Beef workers are facing as the bosses try to keep the union out. We don't want Nebraska Beef workers to fall into the same traps and make the same mistakes," he said. Chavez reported that the production workers at his plant are discussing launching another organizing effort next year. "Even when you win a union and a contract, the fight continues," Chavez added.
Hilda Guillen, a packinghouse worker and a member UFCW Local 540 from Friona, Texas, is currently assigned as an organizer for the Nebraska Beef campaign.
"I've been through the same mistreatment and the same bad conditions that workers here are going through," she told the Militant. "We changed those conditions through the union. No matter how much the company will lie and try to confuse the workers at Nebraska Beef, the two victories at ConAgra and talking to those workers will make it clear that they also need a union."
There are various assessments in the plant on the outcome of the union vote. "I think we are going to win," said one worker at Nebraska Beef. "Many people are afraid to talk about it openly, but they are going to vote for the union. The company runs the line very fast. Many people get injured. Sometimes they get fired or the company does not want to cover their medical expenses."
"It will take more participation and everybody coming together and not being afraid for us to win the election," said Anselm McCrimon, a saw operator in the fabrication department at Nebraska Beef.
Every afternoon, as workers leave the plant, they are greeted by union supporters distributing handbills explaining why workers should support the union and answering the latest company attack on the organizing drive. Among those handing out leaflets have been union field organizers, workers from other industries, union officials from other unions, students, and church members. Many have been organized by Omaha Together/One Community, a coalition of local churches that has been working closely with the UFCW on the drive to organize Omaha packinghouse workers.
Recently, several workers in the plant have begun joining the leafleting teams. McCrimon, who is among those leading this effort, stated, "When people see us hand-billing, everyone sees that there is no reason to be scared, that there is strength in numbers."
Nebraska Beef bosses responded to the stepped-up handbilling by placing several large trash barrels outside the plant with the words "Union Flyers" crudely stenciled on each barrel. Union supporters report that most workers leaving the plant read and keep the union's handbills, which are printed in Spanish and English.
Pro-union workers have also begun joining union organizers in conducting house visits to talk about the union. Organizers project trying to visit every Nebraska Beef worker at their home before the election date.
The company campaign to defeat the union began in earnest several weeks ago with "information sheets" attached to each employee's paycheck and one-on-one meetings between supervisors and workers. Legally barred from threatening to close the plant if workers vote for the union, pro-company forces have been circulating not-so-subtle rumors of a plant closure.
Workers have been given several photocopies of newspaper articles that supposedly tie unions to plant closures. For example, the company sarcastically wrote, "Another Union Victory," on an article entitled, "LBT Tells Strikers: Plant Will Close."
Workers in the ground beef department got a taste of what the company projects at a series of "informational meetings." According to a sign posted by the company, the meetings are designed to "assist you in making an informed decision and one you will not regret." A worker at the meeting reports the boss tried to slander a mechanic at ConAgra, in an attempt to undercut the contract victory there, saying the union "is for lazy people and all they want is your money."