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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 64/No. 31August 14, 2000

¡Sí se puede! Minnesota meat packers win union
Photo - see caption below
Photo: Courtesy of UFCW Local 789
Workers with pro-union T-shirts gather at UFCW Local 789 union hall the evening before July 21 representation election at Dakota Premium Foods in St. Paul, Minnesota. The meat packers voted for the union 112-71. Above photo appears on union web site.

SOUTH ST. PAUL, Minnesota--"Sí se puede! 112 to 71! We won!"

The voice of union president Bill Pearson came over the public address system to 30 meat packers who had gathered at the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 789 union hall in South St. Paul to get the news of the outcome of the union representation election.

Everyone took a few seconds to absorb the news in order to be sure of the outcome. Applause and shouts broke out. The announcement was translated into Spanish, the language of the big majority of the meat packers. More shouts and more applause.

The meat packers at Dakota Premium Foods here had consolidated the gains of their previous struggles against the company by voting for the union.

Twenty minutes later, 10 of the leaders of the meat packers, members of the in-plant organizing committee, arrived. They had just come from the company cafeteria, where the voting had taken place. More applause, shouts, and handshakes of congratulations.

Now there would be a fight for a union contract, to continue to strengthen the fight against the employers' ongoing attacks on the workers. The company has vowed repeatedly that they will never negotiate a contract with the union.

The July 21 vote was the culmination of a seven-week organizing campaign in this plant, where 200 meat packers, the majority Spanish-speaking immigrants, slaughter and process cattle. Workers initiated the union drive after carrying out a seven-hour sit-down strike June 1.

The strike and launching of the union drive were the meat packers' response to deep attacks by the company. Many workers say the speed of production doubled over the previous six months. A number of workers were asked to do the jobs previously done by two people. Several complained they were forced to continue working while injured.

As a consequence of the June 1 sit-down strike, in which they gathered at the company cafeteria in the morning and refused to work until the bosses negotiated their grievances, the workers gained some important concespany cafeteria in the morning and refused to work until the bosses negotiated their grievances, the workers gained some important concessions. The company was compelled to decrease the line speed and allow representatives of the workers to check the rate. It agreed not to force workers to work while injured. Other concessions were won.

During the seven-hour job action, workers began contacting the leaders of UFCW Local 789, who came down to the area near the plant. Union authorization cards were distributed and dozens of workers signed cards and began getting others to sign them.  
On eve of union vote
The company continued its tactics of intimidation and lies on the day before the vote. Supervisors came around and talked to workers individually. According to Amy Roberts, a worker in packaging, supervisors said, "Don't vote for the union. The union will get in the way of talking to the company directly. We're already doing well."

The bosses called two 15-minute meetings of all the workers, one for the cut department and one for the kill. Company manager Steve Cortinas tried to refute each point raised in the last two issues of the union-organizing newsletter The Workers' Voice. Workers from the kill department report that at the meeting they attended Cortinas seemed on the verge of tears when he pleaded with the workers to vote against the union and said, "Please do this for me."

That day the company organized a party at a nearby hotel for all the workers after work, offering all the food and beer they could consume.

The union had scheduled a double rally at the union hall for the same time, as workers got off the job. It was built by widespread distribution of two issues of The Workers' Voice, published in both English and Spanish.

Eighty workers--the overwhelming majority--from the cut department attended the first union rally, and 20 from the kill attended the second rally.

Miguel Gutiérrez, a boner and one of the leaders of the drive, spoke about the company's efforts to divide the workforce. "We made some gains as a result of our strike. There are two representatives of the workers who check the speed of the line and 'gang-time,'" he said, referring to a company practice to avoid overtime pay. "But the company did not keep its word with us on the agreements it made with the committee of 14 people that had been selected during the strike. There is a group of workers in the plant that the company allows to get full breaks. But what about the rest of us, who don't get full breaks? We have to stay united. If we don't stay united, the company will pick us off one by one."

Union president Pearson also addressed the need for unity. "The company has spent loads of money on a feast at the hotel. We can't match the money of the company. However, we are the workers. When we stick together we can defeat the company."

Pearson also spoke to a frequent question the workers had asked: what is different today from 1991 and 1992, when a union organizing drive succeeded but then the union failed to get a contract and was voted out.

"This isn't eight years ago," he said. "The leadership of the local is different but, more importantly, the members are different. Eight years ago the company promoted a number of the leaders to management. This time nobody has sold out. The workers now have a greater sense of confidence and can't be pushed around."

Pearson also took up the question of the fight for a contract, stating, "The company has said it will not agree to a contract. However, the company is vulnerable. The peak season is coming up in a few months. The unemployment rate is low. The company will need every single worker."

Armando, one of the workers present, argued for moving swiftly to the next step. "We have to launch a fight for a contract. We can't wait for a contract to come to us. I do not know if I'll be around in a year or 10 months. The union now is better."  
'You need a union'
Francisco Picado, a meat packer on leave from his job and currently a full-time organizer for the union, read messages of support from other workers. Two messages were particularly well received. One was from 120 meat packers at the IBP plant in Perry, Iowa. It said, "We, workers at IBP, in Perry, Iowa, wish to congratulate you, workers at Dakota Beef, in St. Paul, Minnesota, on your victory against the company with your demands for dignity, more control over the line speed, and fair wages, and we support you in your fight to join the union."

Another message was from a farmer in southern Georgia, Willie Head. "I worked at Swift meatpacking in Moultrie, Georgia, for four years. We moved from 4,000 hogs a day to 4,800 hogs a day in a short period of time. We were denied the right to go to the bathroom. We were denied the right to bid on the job of our choice. We were denied the right to talk to our supervisors about working conditions such as the line speed. We were forced, as you have been, to work when injured--or get fired. This is why you need a union more than a paycheck. You really don't have a choice. YOU NEED A UNION."

Messages were also read from tomato pickers in a union organizing drive in Arizona, from workers in a nonunion Miami garment plant, and workers locked out by AK Steel in Ohio.

The meeting of the cut was also addressed by Alberto Puga, a former farm worker and veteran of struggles that forged the United Farm Workers a couple of decades ago. Puga was representing Isaiah, a coalition of religious-based community organizations that supports the rights of immigrant workers in the Twin Cities area.  
Threats about immigration
"As an immigrant worker who has taken part in union struggles I know what you are going through right now," Puga said. "I've been told the company is making threats about immigration. Don't get intimidated. The community and the churches responded to the call of the workers of the Holiday Inn Express when their employer used the INS [Immigration and Naturalization Service] against their organizing drive. The employer lost and had to compensate those workers and the INS had to give them work permits. If they tried to do something similar to you, we'll be ready, we'll be right here. You are not alone."

Some members of the International Association of Machinists who work as baggage handlers at Northwest Airlines also spoke in solidarity. In addition, a few members of other unions such as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; United Auto Workers; and Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical, and Energy Workers attended the event.

The high point of the rally was when the cut workers took the stage at the union hall for a group photo. Dozens had put on black T-shirts that had printed in red letters across the chest, "Union yes--Sí se puede!" The mood was festive and confident. Workers gave themselves a big ovation.

The photograph was printed in color the following morning in a special last-minute edition of The Workers' Voice, designed to show the strength of the union-organizing drive and answer again the bosses' arguments. The photo appears on the home page of the Local 789 web site, at www.ufcw789.org.

The same issues that were discussed at the rally for the cut were discussed at the rally for the workers from the kill. José Estrada, a meat packer for 40 years, stated, "On the eve of the vote to decertify the union eight years ago, the supervisors went around putting a lot of pressure to vote no. And this worked on some people. Yesterday they were doing some of the same things. But don't be afraid. Talk to your co-workers about why we need a union."

Enrique Flores Sr., a lead man who has worked in the kill for six years, stated, "When we killed several hundred cattle it was considered a record and they gave us beer, entire meals, and bonuses. Now we kill 700 and they give us nothing. Cortinas said that what The Workers' Voice has published about the company's production drive was a lie, that they would keep production at 700 cattle a day. But I know he is not telling the truth. They are installing new rails in the cooler. They are planning on expanding to 900 cattle in nine hours. They promise you things and then they break their promises."

Pearson also addressed the kill meeting. "At the earlier meeting of the cut, there were 80 brothers and sisters. We are strong in boning. In the kill we can make the difference. On June 1 you did the bravest thing I've ever seen in my life. Tomorrow is just the beginning of a new fight. When we win, this starts the battle for the contract. The fight will be on for wages, benefits, and dignity."  
'Who will you call tonight'
A number of workers in the kill department raised their hands and went to the front of the room to address the issues. Messages of solidarity from other workers were read again. Pablo Tapia, a representative of Isaiah, asked the kill workers present, "Who are you going to call tonight to discuss the need for a union?" He reiterated the commitment of his organization to the fight for a contract. The kill workers took the pro-union T-shirts and put them on. Several gave statements to be published in The Workers' Voice calling for a "yes" vote.

The voting began at 2:30 p.m. in the company cafeteria. That morning, leaders of the union organizing drive passed out copies of the new color edition of The Workers' Voice. Workers in the cut department kept chanting, "S se puede," according to workers in the department.

The bosses had some new tricks. Workers in the plant report that the company had tried to allow some quality control personnel to vote. This was not allowed, however, since quality control employees are part of management. The company tried to allow brand-new workers to participate in the vote by switching their blue hats to white hats to fool other workers into thinking they were eligible to vote. The workers assigned to be union election monitors foiled the maneuver. Company supervisors, however, were successful in a few instances in preventing pro-union workers from voting by misleading them about the time they were allowed to vote.

The voting, which continued until 5:30 p.m. was conducted by representatives of the National Labor Relations Board. A little after 6:30 the votes were tabulated and the union victory was announced: 112 for the UFCW, 71 against.

Union monitors contested 12 votes. Four votes by union supporters were disqualified as not clear.

The celebration of the union victory continued until 8:30 that night. There were numerous informal discussions about what needed to be done now.

José Mateo, a boner and a leader of the union drive, told a group of co-workers, "We need to be even stronger now. We don't know the plans of the company. They will try to take advantage of any weakness. Let's not be provoked." Francisco Picado stated, "It's very important not to allow the company to provoke us. We need to respond collectively."

Miguel Olvera, another worker in the cut and leader of the drive, said, "We have to deepen and solidify leadership in the different departments of the company. And we have to win over the 71 who did not vote for the union. We have to strengthen ourselves for the next stage of the fight. We have to keep the pressure on the company and continue to organize to fight."

The next day, at a demonstration of 500 workers in support of Teamsters on strike against Pepsi-Cola in the Twin Cities, a number of workers and union activists commented that they had heard about the union victory and felt boosted by it.

Tom Fisher is a textile worker in Minnesota.

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