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Minnesota meat packers fight to defend union
Dakota Premium Foods bosses campaign to decertify local won in two-year struggle
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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 71/No. 30      August 20, 2007

(lead article)
Minnesota meat packers
fight to defend union
Dakota Premium Foods bosses campaign
to decertify local won in two-year struggle
Militant/Ben O’Shaughnessy
Dakota Premium Foods workers and other union members prepare The Workers Voice, an in-plant newsletter, at UFCW Local 789 hall July 31. From left: Ricardo Orozco, Tibursio Cortes, Local 789 union representative Rafael Espinosa, and Rebecca Williamson.

South St. Paul, MINNESOTA—Bosses at the Dakota Premium Foods beef slaughterhouse here are on a campaign to decertify the union. The anti-union drive comes in the midst of contract negotiations between the company and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789, which represents the 200 plus workers in the plant.

“This fight to maintain the union at Dakota has high stakes for meatpackers and for the labor movement in the entire Midwest,” said Julian Santana, a worker in the kill department. “If the company breaks the union, other meatpacking companies in the area will be emboldened to do the same.”

The contract expired June 30. Leading up to the expiration, two pro-company workers began circulating petitions “to remove the union,” requesting that the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hold an election to decertify the union. The company broke off contract negotiations in mid-July.

“The company wants to get rid of the union so that they can go back to the ways things were before, and do whatever they want,” said Juan Vargas, a worker in the kill department.

Workers at Dakota Premium won their first contract in October 2002, after a two-year battle including a sit-down strike that forged the union in the plant. They approved the agreement by a vote of 149 to 21.

“If the union goes down we all go down,” said Ricardo Orozco, who has worked at Dakota Premium for more than 3 years. He said that the majority of workers in the plant were hired recently. “All of us have to pass the message to others.”

“We are taking this attack very seriously,” said Don Seaquist, Local 789 president. “If the company gets away with decertifying the union at Dakota, it could spread to other plants.” Local 789 also organizes workers at Dakota Premium’s sister plant, Long Prairie Packing in Long Prairie, Minnesota.

According to workers, the company has been increasing the speed of the processing line. They said that in the last five months the line speed jumped from about 80 cows per hour to over 90.

The company’s drive to increase production at the cost of the health and safety led to the June 2000 sit-down strike. Workers refused to work until the bosses slowed the line speed and stopped forcing people to work while injured.

Prior to the plantón, as workers here refer to the strike, the company had carried out a decade-long anti-union offensive. Those who worked in the plant then report that bosses intimidated, fired, or bought off pro-union workers, used legal maneuvers, and carried out a deceitful propaganda campaign in an effort to keep the union out.

Workers fought back with determination and unity and put their stamp on the organizing drive. For example, when the company tried to victimize or fire a pro-union worker, others would come to their aid. Frequently, large delegations of workers would go to the office together to protest intolerable conditions or boss abuses. They also publicized their struggles in the Workers’ Voice, an in-plant newsletter published in English and Spanish, which was also circulated at Long Prairie.

The pro-union workers reached out broadly for solidarity from other unions and the community. Leading up to the July 2000 representation election, they talked to each worker in the plant individually to win them to the union.

Samuel Farley, a worker in the boning department and a shop steward, was part of the union organizing drive. “Before, if you got injured they would automatically get rid of you. Today the company can’t do that.” This and other reasons are “why we need a union,” he said.

The union held a special meeting July 26 to discuss the next steps in the fight against the decertification attempt. According to workers, supervisors stopped the line that day, blocked exits and bathrooms, and herded workers into the cafeteria for a meeting with Steve Cortinas, the plant manager. Cortinas announced the company would resume negotiations.

Workers asked what the conditions, wages, and benefits would be without the union. Cortinas said that “before the union, during the union, and after the union” there were raises, seniority rights, and benefits. Several workers challenged this. One said that he had worked in the plant for 10 years, and before the union there were no raises for at least five years.

Union supporters from both the cut and the kill floor put out a new issue of Workers Voice. They are planning to use it reach to out to every worker in the plant and more broadly.

Rebecca Williamson is a trimmer at Dakota Premium and a member of UFCW Local 789. Róger Calero worked at Dakota Premium in 2000. Alyson Kennedy and Tom Fiske contributed to this article.
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Solidarity with Dakota meat packers!

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