The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 69/No. 44           November 14, 2005  
Poultry workers in South
fight to organize union
RUSSELLVILLE, Alabama—Workers are building support for union recognition at the Gold Kist poultry plant here in their fight for improved pay, better working conditions, and respect from the company. “We want the union at our plant because people are getting tired of the way the company treats us,” said Marinda Newsome, who has worked six years at the plant.

Newsome was among some 20 workers attending a weekly meeting at the Winn Wood Inn to discuss how to win more support for the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) among the more than 1,500 workers at the plant. The majority of the workers are from Mexico, Guatemala, and other Latin American countries.

The fight takes place shortly after 700 workers at the Koch Foods poultry plant in Morristown, Tennessee, voted overwhelmingly September 9 for the UFCW.

Gold Kist has fought tooth and nail against workers’ organizing efforts, pressuring them to vote down the union twice in the 1990s. More recently the company has organized separate antiunion meetings in English and Spanish and sent out letters to workers stating that it will “use all means to keep the union out of Russellville.”

Gold Kist is the third-largest integrated chicken company in the United States, accounting for more than 9 percent of chicken produced last year. In August the company reported profits of $87 million for the first nine months of fiscal 2005.

“The company is making a lot of money,” said Brenda Goodloe, who trims breast meat and is moved from job to job. “Last year they gave us a 15-cent raise but then increased the line speed four or five birds a minute and raised the cost of insurance. People are working harder but the wages are the same.” The plant processes about 35 birds a minute.

Many workers born abroad have been threatened with firings and deportation if they express support for the union, Goodloe noted. Despite this intimidation she recounted an incident about six months ago when some 300 workers—mostly immigrants from Latin America—from deboning and 80 from leg quarters walked off the line to demand higher pay and an end to forced overtime.

“It was ridiculous working so many hours, with no definite time to leave,” said Goodloe. “A certain line would be told to come in at 5:00 a.m. and not leave until 6:00 p.m.”

The brutal line speed and the need for better pay are driving workers to push for union power. Many of them expressed anger about the lack of seniority rights, which the bosses use to put the most militant workers and those they don’t like on the hardest jobs.

Goodloe, who is Black, remarked how racist discrimination resulted in her being bumped from job to job. When she developed carpal tunnel syndrome, “the company doctor told me that I didn’t get it there but from another job.” She pointed to threats of firing that the bosses hurled at Delores Smith, who last December slipped on a greasy metal plate and broke her ankle. “They told her if she saw her own doctor she would be fired.”

Smith, who prepares boxes to hold processed chickens, said the company nurse, without even looking at her ankle, told her to take ibuprofen and go home. Later Smith looked at her ankle and saw pieces of bone protruding through her sock. When her son took her to the emergency room, X-rays showed her ankle was broken in three places.

Smith had another accident last July when folded-up boxes that workers upstairs send to her via a chute tumbled out and knocked her eyeglasses to the floor, breaking the frames.

“They sent me home for the day, saying it was my fault,” said Smith. “I also got a write-up.”

At first, Gold Kist refused to pay for new glasses, which she said would cost $378. With her base wage of $8.40 an hour, that would exceed her weekly pay. The company has now offered to pay $38 toward the glasses.

Smith’s co-worker, Donna Porter, explained that “when I saw how the company mistreated Delores and didn’t want to help her, that made me want to fight for the union.”

Porter, who has worked a year and a half at Gold Kist, remarked how the bosses promote abuse. “Screaming and yelling are commonplace. The company has no respect for our integrity. I’m hoping we win the union.”
Related article:
Poultry workers walk out in Livingston, California
Demand union recognition, better conditions
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