Now we must win a decent contract
Victory for union at Minnesota packinghouse
is boost to efforts to organize other workers
Unionists rally at Dakota Premium the day before 2-1 vote to keep the union there
BY CARLOS SAMANIEGO
ST. PAUL, Minnesota, February 5The January 25 union election victory at Dakota Premium Foods was quickly followed by workers pushing back new company attacks that aimed to weaken the growing union support among meat packers here.
Just days after the workers rejected a company-backed drive to decertify the union and voted by a nearly 2-1 margin to remain organized in United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 789, the bosses fired Charlie Hultman. He immediately went to the union headquarters to let his coworkers and union officials know what happened. Four hours later he was back on the job.
The same day, union officials got the companys agreement to return Solomon Thomas to work as well. Thomas, an African American, had been forced out of the plant after racist treatment by a supervisor, who repeatedly used racist insults against him including chango, Spanish for monkey.
Hultman, one of the newer unionworkers, was on light duty after a job injury when he was fired. I have a two-day-old baby, Hultman said in an interview. When he arrived at work, he noted, the company practically told me Congratulations, and youre fired.
People are happy to hear how I got my job back. They say, Good, we need something like that. He added, Its great that people from different races have come together. Its a good example for other people. This is how its supposed to be. Its supposed to be the land of the free.
In the months leading up to the union vote, the Dakota Premium bosses shifted their hiring practices by bringing in a much larger number of U.S.-born workers, including workers who are Black, Native American, and white. They also hired many workers who are on court probation.
Over the previous years, the big majority hired were Latino and foreign-born workers, many of whom were the backbone of the successful battle to organize the union in 2000-2002. The majority remains Spanish-speaking.
The bosses expected that the changed composition of the workforce would allow them to pit workers against each other, native-born against foreign born, Latino against Black, and that those on legal probation would be afraid to take a stand against the company.
The opposite happenedworkers defeated the company attempts to divide them. They voted for the union in even greater numbers than before, 152 to 82. In July 2000 the vote to unionize was 112 to 71.
Signaling a new stage of their struggle, the unionists at Dakota put together a new issue of their newsletter, the Workers Voice, and marked it Vol. 4, issue no. 1.
The newsletter publicized the victory in winning back the jobs of Hultman and Thomas, and explained the need to use union power to stand up to further attacks and to win a new, better contract. It also urged a big attendance at the special union meeting and victory celebration at the Local 789 union hall planned for February 9.
The Workers Voice needs to keep coming out, said Argelia Flores Díaz, a kill floor worker. The fact that the supervisors harassment was mentioned in it helps get the bosses off our backs a little more. And the fact that the union phone number was on the flyer was important because it helps workers think they dont just have to take this abuse.
Rebecca Williamson, who works in the boning department, said it was important not only to get workers at Dakota but other meatpacking workers to the victory celebration. The effect of this campaign goes beyond Dakota, even beyond this area. Other workers have been paying attention, and so have other bosses. If we had lost at Dakota, the companys sister plant in Long Prairie [Minnesota] would have been next. I think with this victory weve opened up wider possibilities to build the union in meatpacking.