The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 23           July 7, 2003  
350 turn out for strike solidarity
plant-gate rally at Tyson Foods
(front page)
JEFFERSON, Wisconsin—“This is our strike, too,” was a sentiment echoed by many unionists who rallied here in support of meat packers on strike against Tyson Foods. Some 350 people participated in the June 22 solidarity action at the plant gate called by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 538, whose members walked off the job four months ago.

The labor event was joined by members of the International Association of Machinists, United Auto Workers, International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Service Employees International Union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, and other UFCW locals. A contingent of about 25 members of Local 60 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees from Madison, Wisconsin, came to support the strikers.

Despite the blazing hot sun the crowd was spirited. Twice vehicles carrying scabs approached the edge of the crowd, drawing pickets’ attention. The first vehicle went through into the plant, while the second vehicle was turned back as strikers chanted “Scab! Scab!” and then “Union! Union!”

“We were here when you walked out and will be here when you walk back in. This struggle is for every worker in the United States,” said Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor. “Your fight is our fight,” Randy Belliel, of the UFCW Northern Joint Council in Canada, said from the speakers platform. “What happens here happens everywhere.” He noted that a UFCW truck started in Canada, picked up products from upstate New York and eventually brought in 13 tons of food for the strikers’ families.

The rally was chaired by Mike Rice, president of UFCW Local 538. Other speakers included union officials, U.S. senator Russell Feingold and other Democratic Party politicians, and a representative of the Green Party.

“We are with you today in your strike,” said José González, a member of UFCW Local 271 who works on the kill floor at the Swift plant in Omaha, Nebraska, where workers won their first contract eight months ago. He spoke in Spanish, and his remarks were translated into English by another member of his local. The crowd gave him a big round of applause after he spoke about a strike in his native Colombia, where telecommunications workers stayed out for five months before winning their fight. He mentioned that for its next union meeting his local had “invited Róger Calero to speak about the victory in his fight against the repression of all immigrants in the United States.” Calero, associate editor of the Spanish-language magazine Perspectiva Mundial and staff writer for the Militant, was successful in stopping an effort by the U.S. immigration police to deport him. He told the rally, “My victory came as a result of reaching out to fighters like you.”

After the demonstration one of the strikers, Mike French, spoke about discussions with members of UFCW Local 271 in Omaha that led to Local 538’s Truth Squad planning a trip to Nebraska. “This is the first Truth Squad trip in a while,” said French. “There will be just one visit in Omaha because we’ve been cutting back” on Truth Squad road trips.

“This visit is very important,” he added, “to show them support as a newly formed union. They showed us support and we’re going there to thank them.”

The Truth Squads that were organized last March and April collected thousands of dollars in donations to help sustain the strikers. The local has also set up a Hardship Committee that assists workers with their mortgages, rent, and medical bills. Kurt Kernan, a member of the committee, noted that more strikers are asking for assistance as they enter their fourth month on the picket line against the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork.

Last year the meat giant reported a gross income of $23 billion. The corporation has about 120,000 employees in 300 facilities located in 29 states and 22 countries. Workers at the Jefferson processing plant produce pepperoni, ham, and salami. On February 28, for the first time in the plant’s history, they went on strike, rejecting the company’s contract offer. The company is demanding a two-tier wage scale that slashes hourly pay for new hires to $9.00 an hour from $11.09, and that freezes pay for others over four years. The company is also demanding the elimination of pensions for new hires and of health-care supplements for retirees, among other concessions

Several strikers described how the company sought to foster divisions among them leading up to the walkout. One crew leader, a Mexican worker, became a supervisor two weeks before the strike. “She started telling us that if there is a strike we would have to cross the picket line,” said Cervando Jiménez, also from Mexico, who has worked in the plant for nearly three years. “We told her ‘no,’ that we can’t cross a picket line. After the strike began she even started calling people at their homes.”

Mexican-born workers, who make up 10 percent of the plant’s workforce of 477, have not crossed the picket line. So far only three people who worked in the plant prior to the strike have reportedly gone back to work.  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home