Minnesota meat packers press fight for union
BY FRANCISCO PÉREZ
SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minnesota-- "I believe we're going to win the vote," said Matías Loya, a boning line worker and one of the leaders of the in-plant union organizing committee of workers at Dakota Premium Foods here. "That's what I think based on discussions with other people in the plant." But, he added, "you really have to look at this battle as part of something bigger. Regardless of what we face at a given time, we have to aim to keep a slow but steady march forward" in fighting for our rights.
Meat packers at Dakota Premium have been engaged in a struggle against brutal working conditions and for the right to be treated with dignity on the job. Although this fight has been going on for many months, it took the form of a union organizing drive to join Local 789 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) as of June 1, when more than 100 workers staged a sit-down strike. Faced with a seven-hour work stoppage in the company cafeteria, despite efforts to intimidate the workers back onto the shop floor, the bosses conceded workers' demand to slow down the production line, and promised to improve the overall treatment of workers.
Stakes are high for both workers and employers in this conflict. Dakota Premium is a subsidiary of Rosen's Diversified, Inc., one of the top 10 beef packers in the country and a multimillion dollar corporation.
The bosses have been doing their best to intimidate and mislead workers into voting against the union. They have also organized company meetings where food and liquor are served to workers while management campaigns for a "no" vote. The in-plant union organizing committee has begun to organize workers to participate in these meetings in order to take on the company propaganda.
'So what's up with the line speed?'
"So, what's up with the line speed?" asked José Mateo, a pro-union worker at one such company affair in a hotel near the plant. The question was addressed at a table full of workers to a company supervisor who was recently brought to Dakota Premium from another of Rosen's slaughterhouses because of his antiunion experience.
"We were promised something different, and this is why people talk about the union," he said. The supervisor, know as Andrés, answered by saying the union would get in the way of workers being able to talk to the company and that even if the union won, the company would never agree to a contract. "If that is the case," Mateo answered, "we might have to shut you down."
Issue number 7 of the Workers' Voice, the newsletter published by the organizing committee of workers in the plant, explains why, a month later, the company has not lived up to the concessions and promises it made during the sit-down strike.
Under the heading "Why we should vote union," the newsletter points out, "Despite the company's efforts to intimidate us and confuse us, the main questions are the questions we have been fighting for since we struck last June 1: the line speed. After the strike the company slowed the line down for a short while. But the line is going fast again. Why is that?
Why company will keep pushing
"The company will not stop pushing for a faster line speed ever. All the meatpacking companies are being driven to do this by the pressures of competition in the market. They can give us a few free tacos and free booze, but they will always try to push us to the limit because of their insatiable thirst for profits. Only if we organize ourselves into a union can we be effective in pushing the bosses back when they try to get so much out of us.
"Without a union we are forced to negotiate individually or in small groups and the gains that we make are very temporary, as we have seen in the last month. Organizing our collective power into a union we can make bigger gains and make them last," the Workers' Voice stated.
Under the heading "Injuries, job combination and training," the newsletter points out, "We have a high rate of injuries on the job. Examples of how the company ignores our pain and forces us to work while injured are countless and ongoing. Only a union contract where the working conditions and training are written down can give us a tool to defend ourselves on a daily basis."
What has changed
The company has concentrated on trying to convince workers that, even if they win union representation, a contract will never be negotiated. In a letter distributed to all workers at the plant gate, Local 789 president William Pearson stated, "The company continues to tell you that even if you win this election, you won't get a contract. They claim it will be just like eight years ago," he said, referring to a successful decertification drive in the plant that stemmed from the union's failure to win a contract 14 months after the union was voted in.
"They're wrong!!!!" Pearson said in the letter. "I 'd like to tell you it's because there's new leadership at the union. Unfortunately that's not enough. The simple fact is that all the union's strength comes from the collective power of the workers. Stop and think about what you did. You shut the line down because you were willing to stand together. It may well have been the bravest act that I have ever seen by a group of workers."
"There are other reasons," he continued. "Eight years ago there were more workers looking for work. You are no longer expendable in the company's eyes. They desperately need you for the plant to run. Unemployment is at an all-time low in the Twin Cities." But "the last piece may be the most powerful," he noted. "Everyone is watching the outcome of this election and contract negotiations.... This isn't just your fight anymore. It's all of ours."
The workers and UFCW Local 789 organized a prayer service along with Father Hugo Montero on Sunday, July 16, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in South St. Paul. A potluck dinner took place afterward where many workers, their families, union staff, and other supporters of the fight spent time socializing and discussing their struggle while eating homemade pozole and having a good time.
"Union yes! Sí se puede!" T-shirts were distributed among workers and plans began to be made for a "T-shirt day" on the day of the vote. Many workers took sample ballots to bring to co-workers in order to make sure supporters of the union are clear on how exactly the ballot should be filled out in favor of the union.
As the Militant went to press, workers were planning a "Union Yes" rally on the day before the union vote. They called on participation by family, friends, and supporters of the workers at Dakota Premium. An open house was also planned at the union hall after the vote. The election was slated to take place between 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. on Friday, July 21. The ballots will be counted immediately after the vote.
"I believe we can and we will win, and I look forward to the celebration of a victory of winning union representation," said Samuel Farley, a brisket boner and one of the leaders of the organizing committee. "But you've also got to be clear that the vote does not end anything. It will define a stage in our ongoing fight for justice."
Farley added, "I look back at what has been accomplished so far and I tell you I am very proud of so many of my co-workers in the kill and the boning departments because we are today so much stronger than when we started this struggle. And that is the reason I can confidently say that, regardless of the outcome on July 21, this fight will continue."