Meat packers press for union victory in St. Paul
Dakota Premium bosses step up antiunion propaganda
BY TOM FISHER
SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minnesota--Two weeks before the union election, the bosses at Dakota Premium Foods here have launched new attacks on the union-organizing drive in the plant. Workers there are finding ways to answer the attacks and to move forward.
Dakota Premium, with some 200 workers, the majority Spanish-speaking, is a beef slaughterhouse where the employers carried out a drive to intensify the speed of work over the previous six months. Many workers say they were being forced to perform double the amount of work from before. The company was also forcing meat packers to work while they were injured.
Workers in the plant responded to these intolerable conditions with a seven-hour sit-down strike on June 1 to demand a decrease in the line speed and press other demands.
The company, surprised by the swiftness and seriousness of the strike, made concessions on the line speed and some other issues. To safeguard their advances, workers launched a new drive to organize a union in the plant, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789. A previous organizing drive in 1991 had succeeded, but the union was voted out in 1992 when it failed to gain a contract.
The union election is set for July 21.
On July 11 the company called together small groups of workers from various areas of the plant to hear talks against the union-organizing drive. Speaking for the company were company manager Steve Cortinas and Dominick Driano, a director of Human Resources for the holding company of Dakota Premium Foods, Rosen Diversified Industries. The lawyer did most of the talking. According to workers in the plant, the lawyer made points to the different groups of workers along the following lines:
"Don't vote for the union. The union is another business, a company that comes between the worker and Dakota Premium Foods. The union prevents you from having any say over your conditions.
"If the union wins the election, what will it mean? They won't get a contract. Eight years ago you voted the union in and the union couldn't get a contract. What has changed?
"The union has no power. The only thing the union can do is lead you to strike. Strike action is the only weapon you would have.
"Workers at the Long Prairie plant got a little increase in wages, but things there are worse than here. Your health insurance is paid for, but they have to pay for theirs. If you vote for the union, you will lose your benefits immediately.
"The union is promising it can help get immigration papers for everyone. This is not true."
The Long Prairie plant, a beef slaughterhouse 100 miles northwest of St. Paul, is also owned by Rosen Diversified Industries. The workers at Long Prairie Packing have a union and belong to UFCW Local 789.
Pro-union workers answer propaganda
The issues in this propaganda attack had been discussed at a meeting of the union organizing drive July 6 and in the last union newsletter. According to Francisco Picado, a slaughterhouse worker who is on staff for the organizing drive, there was lively discussion on these points. At the meeting a worker who was a veteran of the union organizing drive of the early 1990s asked, "What will be different this time? We voted for the union. But then a year went by. Some workers were fired, some workers were bought off, but they treated us better. When the union was voted out they went back to their old ways. I want the union. But how do we get a contract?"
An organizer for the union, Trish Ramirez, stated, "The organizing drive is stronger this time. In the fight for the contract we'll get community support, we'll get churches and the media to put pressure on the company. None of that was done last time."
To this Picado added, "The only force that can determine when and how you will get a contract is the same force that stopped production June 1. It is the workers who will determine the outcome."
"What happens if we lose the union election?" was also a topic of the discussion at the union meeting. A leader of the organizing drive, Miguel Olvera, responded, "We are being forced to make a stand. The company forced us to make a stand when they increased the line speed. If we don't make a stand, things will get worse."
Some 35 workers from the cut department and 5 from the kill department attended the union meeting.
According to workers in the plant, the company has posted a sign in the lunch room. The sign makes the following points, "Local 789 won't represent you adequately--it represents workers mainly at nursing homes. The union constitution says you can be put on trial. Also, Local 789 gets $1.7 million in dues, which supports the exorbitant salaries of the organizers and also gets sent to the union's Washington office."
This last point was answered by Matías Loya, a worker in the cut department, who told the Militant, "I want to be a member of a national union. I want an organization that can have an impact on a national level."
The fifth issue of The Workers Voice, the bilingual newsletter of the workers at Dakota Premium, answered the company propaganda that the union is another company. "The union and the company are very different," stated the newsletter. "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."
It is not only propaganda that the company is using to try to break the union organizing drive. For example, it has increased the workload of two workers who are supporters of the union in the kill department and at the same time has cut their wages, in an obvious attempt to provoke them to quit in outrage. At a previous union meeting workers discussed this company tactic and decided to encourage each other to stay and fight. The company successfully employed this tactic a few weeks ago against four workers in the kill.
Company trying to divide workers
The company is trying to drive a wedge between workers in the cut department and the kill department and is using some more aggressive tactics against workers in the kill.
Enrique Flores, a pro-union worker who had recently quit his job, returned to the plant July 5 to pick up his check. He went to the kill to invite his former co-workers and friends to his wedding. He began passing out a few wedding invitations. Management, thinking he was passing out union-organizing material, called a security guard who began yelling insults and pushing him away from the kill floor.
When Obdulia Flores, a worker in the kill department, began defending Enrique Flores, who is her son, the security guard shoved her around also. Company manager Cortinas admitted in the small group meetings July 11 that the company "overreacted."
The company is making a naked attempt to buy off workers in the plant. On July 11 workers in the kill department were served tacos and soda on their break, a move that apparently had little effect. When asked "What is the occasion?" a worker responded, "They are trying to get us to vote against the union."
The following day the company called a meeting at a hotel for all the workers. At the previous meeting at the hotel the company had provided free food and liquor. It was attended by 18 workers.
Leaders of the union organizing drive are intensifying their efforts to win a majority. They have organized house visits to talk through the many issues and questions that workers have on their minds. Trish Ramirez, the organizer for the UFCW, reported that the house visits are having an impact on the discussion.
"For example, we explained that it is illegal for the company to take away benefits during the organizing drive or during the contract negotiations as they are threatening to do." She stated, "The experience of those who are visiting the workers gives us confidence about winning a strong vote for the union on the 21st."
Leaders of the union organizing effort planned a new issue of The Workers' Voice for July 13, and those active in the organizing drive are slated to help distribute the newsletter outside the company gates for the first time.
In addition, the union has organized a prayer service and a dinner for workers at Dakota Premium Foods at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul on July 16, the last Sunday before the vote. The church has the largest Latino congregation in St. Paul and is a few miles from the plant on Concord St. Many workers at the plant are members of the congregation.