Omaha meat packers win union at ConAgra
After INS raid, union stands up at Nebraska Beef
BY EDWIN FRUIT
DES MOINES, Iowa--In a victory for working people, workers at the ConAgra sausage processing plant in Omaha, Nebraska, voted 90-65 to join the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) December 15. This is the second union victory in a drive to organize some 4,000 workers in the city's meatpacking industry.
Donna McDonald, president of UFCW Local 271, told the Omaha World-Herald, "We feel great. It's on to the rest." Jeff Smith, manager of the ConAgra Armour-Swift Eckrich plant, said, "We plan to bargain in good faith to negotiate a contract with the UFCW."
The UFCW and Omaha Together, One Community (OTOC), a coalition of churches and community groups, started the organizing campaign among the largely Latino workforce last June. In November, production workers at the ConAgra Northern States Beef plant voted down the union while maintenance voted for the union.
In a phone interview, an OTOC staff person said the composition of the workforce at the ConAgra Armour plant includes a higher percentage of U.S.-born workers than at other plants involved in the organizing drive. He estimated that 25 percent are immigrant workers from Latin America, 45 percent are U.S.-born, and the rest are of other nationalities, including Filipinos and Yugoslavs, mostly from Bosnia.
The union victory came 10 days after a highly publicized raid in Omaha at Nebraska Beef by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), together with local and state police. The cops detained some 200 workers who they claimed were in the country illegally and marched them into buses while still wearing their work clothes. An organizing effort is underway at the plant and the UFCW protested the raid as a violation of labor law.
In the parking lot outside the plant December 30, one worker said, "It was bad what the INS did" with the raid. He viewed winning undocumented workers to the union as a challenge, since many return home after a few months. "Those of us with papers should work harder to get the union in the plant," he said. "We should be more confident now to fight and at the same time defend those that the INS arrested." Another worker said that there had been two union meetings after the raid but that there were no plans to organize a protest.
In a phone interview, another worker at Nebraska Beef said two days after the raid "workers in fabrication [the cut floor] walked off the job and went into the cafeteria. They demanded that the line speed be slowed down and wanted a $1 more an hour in pay. After about a half hour, the company came back and said they would give a 50 cents an hour increase if people went back to work. Some of the workers wanted to hold out for the dollar as others were willing to go back to work," he said. "The company wrote down names and threatened to fire workers if they did not go back to work. After returning, six female workers were fired who the company targeted as leaders of the protest." Workers on the kill floor were not involved, he said, "as there had been no communication between the two parts of the plant." He also said that he had worked in the plant for a year and a half and that for the first time he was having trouble with his hands. The company is hiring workers every day but many quit after a day or two because of the hard work and pain they do not want to endure.
UFCW organizers say workers continue to get cards signed in the various plants that are targeted and the organizing drive in Omaha might be the largest single packinghouse campaign in the past 20 years.
Edwin Fruit is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1149 and is a meat packer in Perry, Iowa.