BY FRANCISCO PÉREZ
SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minnesota--With two and half weeks left before workers at Dakota Premium Foods will vote to decide whether or not they will be members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, tensions are increasing.
In addition, workers in the plant report that the company is increasing the line speed again, getting production done in less than eight hours. Line speed was the main issue that galvanized the workers who organized a seven-and-half-hour sit-down strike on June 1.
The day of the strike, workers contacted United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 789 for help and launched an organizing drive to bring the union back to this plant of some 200 workers. Many strikers signed interest cards that day. The UFCW had been decertified in 1992 after it failed to win a contract from the company.
The workers ended their strike only after plant manager Steve Cortinas agreed to meet with them and conceded a number of the workers' demands. These included slowing down the line and instituting worker representatives to keep an eye on the line speed and to clock in and out all workers who are paid under the "gang time" system.
On June 12, the workers organized a march and rally in front of the plant demanding the company recognize their right to collective bargaining through Local 789. The following day, in face of the company's refusal, Local 789 filed a petition for union recognition with the National Labor Relation Board (NLRB), turning in signed cards from the majority of the workers in the plant. The NLRB has set an election date for the afternoon of July 21 in the company's cafeteria.
"To be most effective in preparing for the vote," said Miguel Olvera, a line worker and a leader of the in-plant union organizing committee, "we are dividing up the entire production line in both the cut and kill among the key activists fighting for union representation." He added, "This way we can better organize to talk to whoever we need to talk to and verify who gets to vote."
"Getting to talk to everyone is critical," said Samuel Farley, a boning department worker and a leader of the organizing drive. "Before I could finish explaining why we so badly needed the union to a couple of workers, they cut me off and said, 'Look, you don't need to go into all that--we are for the union. We haven't been to meetings and don't want to be identified with the union right now because our supervisor is real bad news, OK?'"
'Workers' Voice' answers lies
The fifth and latest issue of The Workers' Voice, the bilingual newsletter of the workers at Dakota Premium, reports that workers are getting harassed by supervisors and by plant manager Cortinas. Under the headline "Intimidation," the newsletter says the bosses "tried to intimidate a number of workers like Matías Loya and Miguel Gutiérrez by telling them to stop 'harassing people' because they were talking with coworkers about the union during their break."
The newsletter also reports that UFCW Local 789 president Bill Pearson would send a letter "to the NLRB noting that the company is harassing workers for exercising our legal right to talk about the union during our breaks." The bulletin also urges all workers to "write down the date, time, place and circumstances of" any harassment by the employers in order to "start building up a file of company violations that can be presented to the NLRB."
The newsletter answers company propaganda that describes the union as being another company that will crowd in the work place and leave workers in the middle with no say on matters. "Isn't it better you just meet with us?", the company's personnel director is quoted saying in the newsletter.
"The union and the company are very different," the union newsletter states. "The company owns this plant and many others. They make money by hiring us to transform the cattle into the product they sell on the market. The union does not own any factories and it does not exploit workers and their labor to make money. Unions were created by workers out of our need to defend ourselves from the greed of the company owners."
The Workers' Voice announces that last week union activists led by Tish Ramírez began house visits to workers at Dakota. "Thank you for the warm welcome you have given to them and more of you can expect calls and visits this week. These visits are a real opportunity for you to get clarity and have a relaxed conversation without the boss watching over your shoulder. Take advantage of the visit, get your questions ready, and given the current weather, if you give them a glass of ice water you will make them smile," it concludes.
"Another lie the company is circulating now," said Miguel Olvera, "is that workers will not be able to get their jobs back when we travel to see our families in Mexico if we win union recognition. But this is just not true. What happens right now is that some workers are forced to quit while others get leaves to go to Mexico based on favoritism," he said.
"If you are forced to quit they will maybe hire you back, but as a new worker with the lowest pay and no benefits. By winning union representation we will be a position to fight for equal treatment for all of us and for the right to have adequate leaves to visit our families." Olvera told the Militant that this and many other questions would be taken up at the next general union meeting scheduled for July 6.
"I'm not giving up. It has not been in my nature to give up, and I am not about to start now," said Marie Sandoval, a Dakota Premium Foods worker who was fired by the company last week. Sandoval, a worker in the plant for several years, was forced to leave her job in the production line at Dakota Premium after her foot was hit accidentally by a passing load of pallets.
Sandoval is currently employed in another meatpacking plant in South St. Paul, but intends to keep fighting Dakota Premium for the injustice done to her. She has been an active participant in the fight for union recognition at Dakota Premium going back many months, when a group of workers in the plant organized trips to the Labor Board denouncing unfair treatment by the bosses.
Speed-up in all meatpacking industry
Even though she was home recovering from the accident, Sandoval got word from co-workers and came into the plant and participated on the strike of some 120 workers in the plant's cafeteria to demand a safer production line speed.
"Before the strike, there had been many fights in the plant," explained Sandoval. "A group of us had gone to the Labor Board complaining about being shorted for time worked in our paychecks. There had been groups of boning line workers who would go into the management office and put forward demands and got some things changed at times," she said. "I had been arguing with co-workers about the increasing line speed for a long time," she said. "I would tell coworkers: 'Don't kill yourself, let the pieces of meat go, let them pile up. But many people would quit working in the plant because they couldn't take the abuse to their hands," she concluded.
The speed-up at Dakota Premium Foods is not an exception in the meatpacking industry. "The beef industry needs to learn how to get the cost out of the production cycle like poultry and pork have done," noted Alan Gluek, representative of Con Agra Red Meat Companies in Greeley, Colorado, in a recent beef industry report.
Dakota Premium is owned by Rosen Diversified, Inc. (RDI). In an interview last year in Connect Business Magazine at its headquarters in Fairmont, Minnesota, the corporation's owner and CEO, Thomas Rosen, explained the industry's productivity drive. "I have read that the nationwide kill at slaughterhouses is increasing while the number of slaughterhouses is decreasing," said reporter Daniel J. Vance.
"That's true," explained Rosen. "There has been way too much capacity in the hog and cattle industry. Up until the last three years, it has been a pretty tough go in the meat packing industry. The industry has returned to profitability by eliminating some facilities and by consolidating capacity. We'll probably see more of that."
"Consolidation of capacity" translates into a nightmare for meat packers on the production line. "A year ago when I got hired," said Javier Quintal, a boning department worker at Dakota Premium, "we were getting out 450 cows in a 10 hour day. Now they had us doing 800 cows in a seven-and-half-hour day," he said.
"I take out the shank," Quintal continued, "and I would ask my supervisor to put me on another job because my hands were getting messed up. 'You've got to stay there,' he would tell me, and he would give me painkillers for my hands. My fingers were swollen way past their normal size and I would go home unable to close my hands all the way. It wasn't till they warmed up, after being on the line for a while, that I would be able to close them again.
Quintal was a fisherman in his hometown of Quintana Roo, in the southernmost province of Mexico. He told this reporter that he and his family could not make a living despite their best efforts, and they decided to try their luck in the United States after a friend of the family suggested it.
"Being a fisherman is a hard and dangerous trade," said Quintal. "It is not just the hard work and the long hours, but it is also dealing with sea, the sharks, and other animals too. But," said Quintal, qualifying his words, "I never thought I would end up having to do something that is much worse here in this country."
RDI, a major corporation
Founded in 1970 by brothers Elmer and Ludwig Rosen, RDI ranks number seven among the top U.S. beef packers, according to industry statistics compiled by North Dakota University.
In addition to Dakota Premium Foods, RDI owns slaughterhouses in Long Prairie, Minnesota, and Yankton, South Dakota, with a combined production of some 2,000 heads of cattle per day. RDI also owns Skylark Meats, a plant in Omaha, Nebraska, that processes liver, cut steaks, and ground hamburger, and distributes a number of lines of food products for retail purchase out of there. It sells the Cimpl Dakota Brand of meats.
RDI also operates a barge terminal in Winona, Minnesota, for sales of fertilizer and salt. It owns a regulatory company in Lawrence, Kansas, doing regulatory compliance, insurance audits, and loss control for insurance companies operating all over the United States. It has sales operations for its chemical distribution business in Fairmount, Minnesota in 14 states. Its overall workforce is 1,500 employees. In 1998, RDI grossed $550 million in profits. With revenues of $600 million in 1999 it is listed by Forbes among the 500 largest private U.S. companies.
Rosen Diversified is not new to trouble with its employees. In a sexual harassment lawsuit filed on behalf of workers at its packing plant in Long Prairie, Minnesota, RDI agreed last August to an out-of-court settlement with the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission for $1.9 million.
One male worker said in court documents that he was jumped by groups of men who held him down, sometimes in a bin of raw meat or a trough of blood. He said the sometimes-daily occurrences involved simulated sex acts on him, with at least one supervisor taking part and another threatening to fire him when he complained.