On May 3, production workers at ConAgra’s Northern States Beef plant won a union representation election by a vote of 252 to 126. This is the first union victory among production workers at one of the large slaughterhouses here since June 2000, when the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) began a campaign to organize some 4,000 Omaha meat packers.
The participants in the workers committee, which led workers throughout the six-month fight leading up to the election, emphasized the aid this 2-1 victory can be to other meat packers in nonunionized plants. At a postelection celebration, workers spoke about the importance of bringing this momentum to other plants and helping workers out in any way possible.
On May 10, nine kill floor workers from ConAgra gathered at 5:15 a.m. at the plant gate to Nebraska Beef, a large cut-and-kill plant of 900 workers located a few blocks from ConAgra. Another five gathered in the afternoon to greet workers after their shift. They carried hand-lettered signs announcing, "We won the union at ConAgra" and "ConAgra--yes did it!"
They also passed out a handwritten "message of solidarity and support," which the workers committee had organized to write over lunch the previous day. It announced their victory, and encouraged Nebraska Beef workers to press on, so that they "can also win the union. Together we can do it!" Production workers responded favorably to the news, with many stopping briefly to talk, saying that they also needed the union.
"It was great to see the workers from ConAgra. It made a big impact," said a kill floor worker who had been active in the union drive leading up to last year’s election. "Many people were talking about it in the locker room and lunchroom. A lot of us want the union, but we have to get organized."
Production workers at Nebraska Beef lost the union election in August 2001 by a 452–345 vote. The UFCW subsequently charged irregularities, and the case is still pending in appeals court. After a one-year period, a new election can be held. A May 15 meeting, where Nebraska Beef workers will plan out the next steps in renewing their fight for the union, has been set.
A message of solidarity congratulating the Omaha meat packers on their victory was sent from Chicago by 37 illegally terminated workers at the American Meatpacking Corporation and Rymer group. These workers are fighting to receive the benefits due them when the companies abruptly shut down operations without advance notice.
"The good news has reached Chicago," they wrote. "Now we have the responsibility to ensure that the ConAgra bosses get the message: recognize our brothers and sisters as the union! Sign a contract acceptable to the workers!"
Taking the confidence from their victory to the shop floor, workers organized to defend a co-worker who was told by a supervisor that "he would have to lower his wage now that the union is coming." The worker immediately sought out Olga Espinoza, a leader of the workers committee, and informed her of this attack. She gathered three other workers on the spot and confronted the supervisor.
"He was afraid," said Espinoza. "The four of us confronted him, and he tried to lie his way out of what he had done. He rapidly backed down, and didn’t lower our co-worker’s wage. The company now knows we have a union, and they know they have to walk more carefully."
The continued activity of the workers in the week following the election is of concern to the company. ConAgra officials distributed a letter on May 10 to all employees with their paychecks. It stated that they are disappointed with the outcome of the election, but that they respect the workers’ decision and that it is time to move forward. They promised an employee appreciation lunch in the near future, and reminded workers that "working together we can be successful."
"We jumped the first hurdle, but the struggle to win a contract will depend on a sustained fight inside the plant," said Lisa Rottach, a kill floor worker.
Some workers think that now the company is ready to work with the union to quickly settle a contract, while others have a different view. "This picnic is to calm us down so we don’t demand so much in our contract," said a 20-year veteran of the kill floor. "I’ve begun explaining to co-workers that we shouldn’t be fooled by this."
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