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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 64/No. 25June 26, 2000

'We want the union and we want it now!'
SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minnesota--Chanting pro-union slogans and carrying placards saying "Our Union, Our Voice," some 200 meat packers and supporters marched half a mile from their union hall to the gate of Dakota Premium Foods as part of their drive to win union recognition.

"Sí se puede!," (Yes we can), "Queremos la unión y la queremos ya!" (We want the union and we want it now), and "Cortinas escucha--bájale a la línea!" (Cortinas Listen Up--Slow Down the Line), were among the chants from the fighting unionists.
click photo for larger version- see caption below 
Militant/Jake Perasso
June 12 march won labor and community support for demand to recognize the United Food and Commercial Workers. A big majority of workers have signed union cards.
Steve Cortinas is the plant manager of this South St. Paul packinghouse. Workers are seeking to get the bosses to recognize United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 789 as their union.

At the plant gate a delegation of workers and clergy tried to present a letter to the plant manager requesting that after a check of the union authorization cards he immediately recognize the union. A big majority of workers have signed union cards.

The June 12 march took place in spite of the boss keeping workers past normal quitting time by slowing down the line. Many workers, especially from the kill floor, weren't let out of the plant in time to attend either the march or the rally at the plant gate. A couple dozen workers were able to join post-rally activities at the union hall, which included refreshments and a speak-out.

On June 13, the day after the march, cards were filed before the National Labor Relations Board "to get the clock ticking" said Bill Pearson, president of UFCW Local 789. The card filing sets in motion a 45-day period in which a union representation election must take place.

The march and rally at the plant built on a seven-hour sit-down strike workers held June 1 to protest the speed up of the production line that was resulting in an increasing number of injuries. The company has made some concessions in response to the strike. A worker selected by his co-workers now monitors the speed of the production line and tells the supervisor when to slow down. One worker said, "They are using kid gloves on us right now, but that will change."

The letter sent by union president Pearson to the company on June 12 said in part: "On Thursday, June 1st, the workers at Dakota Premium Foods took an unprecedented action by demanding safer line speeds. When they were told to return to work or leave, more than 100 workers walked out of the plant in protest. This incredibly brave action has since captured the hearts and minds of virtually everyone who has seen or heard of it.

"At the same time, workers from the plant asked UFCW Local 789 to assist them in becoming Union. We have signed a majority of the workforce on authorization cards from kill, processing and related departments. Let this letter serve as a demand for recognition. In conjunction with that, we feel a card check by a member of the clergy would expedite this matter and be in everyone's best interest." Plant security guards blocked the gate, preventing the petitions from being delivered to management.

Miguel Olvera, a worker in the plant who is one of the leaders of the union organizing drive, told the crowd at the plant gate: "I am very happy for your support today. This march is not just for those of us in the plant but for the children."

During the plant gate rally, Maria Granados, who has worked in the packaging department for two years, told the Militant: "The speed of the line is so fast that despite our best efforts we can't keep up." Her friend beside her nodded in agreement. This was repeated by worker after worker. Over the last six months the line speed has increased by 40 percent.

"This action is rooted in the poor treatment workers receive, such as the overwork from the speed of the line," said Miguel Gutiérrez, a cut worker in his late 20s, while marching back to the union hall from the plant. "I have many experiences in Mexico participating in protest actions such as this in school and in unions. We need continued support in the community for our struggle, but we must reach out broader. My sense is that in the plant we have strong support, including on the kill floor, but it is not organized there yet.  
Organizing support on the kill floor
"Many of us who came from Mexico had fear when we came here," Gutiérrez said. "But we see the role of religious people and others. We know that if we get the truth out we will win."

Supporters at the march and rally included three workers at Holiday Inn Express who were part of a determined and victorious fight to organize into a union, only to face victimization by the INS. They continued to fight even after la migra tried to deport them, and received broad support in their struggle. The workers recently forced the INS to back down for a while from the threats of deportation.

Some members of the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees Local 17 also joined the meat packers rally fresh from a June 9 march of several hundred in downtown Minneapolis to demand a new contract. The hotel workers are threatening to strike nine local hotels this week. (See accompanying Militant article.)

Several members of the clergy participated with delegations from their congregations. Announcements about the meat packers march were made at several churches the previous Sunday and leaflets were distributed after mass. Workers also came from a tannery in South St. Paul, as did members of the International Association of Machinists from Northwest Airlines, and members from United Transportation Union Local 650. Activists from ISAIAH, a coalition of religious and community organizations in Minnesota that is active in defense of immigrant rights, a representative from U.S. senator Paul Wellstone's office, and members of other unions and community groups also attended.

Meat packers in Austin, Minnesota, sent a letter of solidarity to Local 789 from "your brothers and sisters of Local 9 UFCW," signed by 56. "We support your struggle for dignity, better working conditions, and a union. Your example teaches us. 'Yes we can do it!'" the message read in Spanish and English.

After the march, over sandwiches and soft drinks at the union hall, worker after worker told their story and discussed the next steps to organize their union in the plant. The meeting was translated into Spanish and English. The large majority of the 175 workers at Dakota Premium are Spanish-speaking immigrants from Latin America, especially Mexico. There are also a number of U.S.-born Black, Chicano, and white workers.

"What you saw today is the tip of the iceberg," said union president Pearson, who opened the meeting. Marie Sanchez, the first worker to speak, said the bosses "treat us like animals and yell at us. If we have a union it's better for us and our family. Why are we afraid? We're brothers and sisters. They don't have the right to treat us like animals. I was hurt when I got hit by a fork truck with pallets. The supervisor didn't report it, so I did. I can't work because I'm hurt. But they think I quit. They have something else coming. I'm not quitting. I'm not going anywhere," she said to applause.  
Rights of workers and immigrants
"We're going to come together in a stronger union," said Pablo Tapia, an auto body shop worker in a Teamster-organized shop, who is active with ISAIAH. "That's what the struggle is about--the rights of workers and immigrants." Tapia helped distribute leaflets for the meat packers' action at churches the Sunday before the march.

"I believe the march had an impact on the company," said organizing drive leader Miguel Olvera. "The day I don't want you to forget is June 1, when over 100 of us sat down in the plant. I never, never, want you to forget that only by staying united can we achieve what we want and truly desire. Right now I want to invite anyone from the cut or the kill floor to join us. Let's win over more co-workers to this fight."

Samuel Farley, who works on the cut floor, said the struggle needs more solidarity such as shown that day. "This is just the beginning. Our struggle for a union comes at a good time. Other workers are stepping forward," he said, "from the Teamsters who just went on strike against Pepsi, to the hotel workers fighting for a contract, to the Holiday Inn Express workers, to miners on strike in New Mexico and Wyoming. Our power was demonstrated with last Thursday's sit-down for over seven hours. What we need now is a larger leadership team in the plant to explain to others why we need a union."

"I've worked in South St. Paul in meatpacking for 44 years," said kill floor worker Jose Estrada. "There is a big difference between working in a plant with a union and without a union. I recommend to the young people here to join the union." He was greeted with warm applause.

Enrique Flores, a younger worker on the kill floor, said workers "do two days work in one day. When I call supervisors and say the machine is broken they don't do anything. They leave all the hard work to me. The supervisors just care how many cows we're slaughtering, not if someone gets hurt. If we stick together, we can win. If we have the union, we will have something to back us up."

For the first time the struggle made the pages of the big-business press, with a large photo and article on the first page of the business section of the Saint Paul Pioneer Press headlined, "Workers march on meat plant--union activity bustles, from hotels to factories." There was also a small article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune that quoted a statement from Dakota Premium Foods that said "the vast majority of the plant employees have made it clear they do not want a union."

Amy Roberts, a worker in packaging, reports that the first day on the job after the march and rally co-workers were greeting each other with "Si se puede!" during the course of the day. Others questioned why more workers didn't turn out for the rally.

A union fact sheet in English and Spanish distributed the day after the rally was welcomed by workers in the plant. It described the previous day's events and the refusal by the bosses to talk to the workers or receive the petition at the plant gate. It ended by saying: "When we are union, the company will have to listen!!!"

Chris Harmon is a union meat packer in Michigan. Jake Perasso, a Detroit-area meat packer, also contributed to this article.

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