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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 71/No. 25      June 25, 2007


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(lead article)
Minnesota meat packers
win union representation
Christobal Mayorga (right), a leader of union organization drive at PM Beef slaughterhouse, in Windom, Minnesota, speaks June 10 with Militant reporter Julian Santana.

WINDOM, Minnesota, June 10—Meat packers from a cattle slaughterhouse in this rural town scored a union victory May 25 when they voted 231-193 to be represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1161. The night of the vote workers packed a local church to celebrate.

“When workers come together, things can change,” Christobal Mayorga told the Militant. Mayorga has worked at PM Beef Holdings for five years and has been getting union stickers out on the job. “Before they saw us as unimportant. The bosses will eat the unorganized worker alive, but when we are organized our voice acquires a strength that can break stones," he said.

Although the press did not cover the election, word of the outcome spread quickly and spirits remain high in the wake of the union victory. This is especially true of workers at Swift & Company’s cut-and-kill plant in Worthington, just 30 miles away. Workers at the Swift plant, which employs about 2,300, are also members of UFCW Local 1161.

The union vote comes six months after la migra raided the Worthington plant, arresting 239 workers. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rounded up nearly 1,300 workers at six Swift plants nationwide last December, half of whom had been deported as of March 1.

Most of the 500 workers at PM Beef are Latino immigrants. Many of them previously worked at Swift in Worthington.

One of the central goals of the immigration police is to strike fear among workers and intimidate them from fighting for their rights. The union vote points in the opposite direction.

Militant reporters talked to workers at PM Beef about their struggle this weekend. The majority asked that their last names not be used, or agreed to be quoted only anonymously, for fear of retaliation by the bosses or the government.

“We sought out the union because we were tired of the indignities and abuses from the supervisors,” said Maria, a PM Beef worker. “We were tired of being cheated on our wages, the line speed, lack of bathroom breaks, and being charged for our knives, which cost between $25-$30 a piece.”

“They charge us for almost everything,” said Saul, who quit PM Beef late last year. “We had to buy our own knives. The line was so fast you couldn’t keep up. I had enough of that. Now I work on a dairy farm. I’m better off with cows.”

“This company treats people like slaves," said another worker at shift change. "The boss promised to give us knives every three months and slow the line down, but people did not believe him.”

Francisco, who works on the cut floor, said workers start at $9 per hour. After the company says you are "qualified," you make $10. It's hard to make more than that. He said he knew of a worker who had been there four years without a raise. In addition, the company often cheated workers in their weekly paychecks. “We would be paid for 38 hours when we worked 40,” he said.

In addition to being denied bathroom breaks, Maria said both the male and female bathrooms only have one stall. Health-care benefits are paltry. “No dental, no vision, and medical insurance with high premiums, like $50 per week. As a result, many go without any insurance,” she said. “We are superexploited, that’s the main reason we are fighting for union representation.”

The organizing effort began last summer. Maria said workers from the plant held a meeting with UFCW officials at a picnic in Worthington. “After that the union began to organize house visits and many workers began to sign union cards," she said. "In February we held a big meeting at a hotel in Windom with everyone there.”

In the weeks before the vote, the bosses and their hirelings, including PM Beef's vice president and a battery of company lawyers, organized an intimidation campaign. They held meetings with workers and said “things like the union is bad, wages will be lowered," said Maria. "Supervisors threatened that la migra will come into the plant.”

“Workers withstood one-on-one meetings with bosses to maintain their solidarity and courage to vote together for UFCW,” said Kevin Williamson, UFCW international vice president and Region 6 director, according to a May 29 union press release. “Their successful campaign will inspire other area meatpacking and other processing workers to stand up for respect and dignity on the job.”

Some 45 percent of the ballots were against the union. A number of workers were persuaded by company supervisors who said “just give us a chance” and promised things will “get better.”

Other workers said the company cheated by having some of the bosses vote in the election.

Mayorga said he is proud of what workers have accomplished. “The company sent the cops after me to ask me for my documents because I drive a bus in which I transport many of the workers from Worthington. They were surprised to see that I have a license and insurance,” he said.

Francisco proudly said that every single worker on the kill floor voted for the union.

"Most of the people on knife jobs supported the union because they are the ones who are suffering the most.” Mayorga added.

After the vote, the company began a petition campaign against the union. Workers say most employees have refused to sign.

PM Beef, which is based in Kansas City, and has plants in Minnesota, Iowa, and Virginia, is also in the hot seat for seven cases of E. coli poisoning in Minnesota this spring.
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