BY SHIRLEY PEŅA AND RICHARD McBRIDE
JOSLIN, Illinois - Some 1,700 members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1540 at the IBP packinghouse here, just east of the Iowa-Illinois border, voted a second time overwhelmingly to reject the company's "final contract offer" and struck the plant on November 12.
Workers and union officials told the Militant that at the meeting for the second vote members were asked to stand to indicate their disposition towards the proposed contract. Of the more than 1,000 unionists in attendance, workers said, all but one stood to indicate their rejection of the company's so- called best offer.
This vote marked a break in the trend where meatpacking companies in the Midwest - including Hormel, Farmhand, Excel and the Dakota City IBP plant - all managed to settle contracts with the various UFCW locals at the last minute.
The first offer from IBP was an 80-cent pay raise over the life of the four-year contract, elimination of some health benefits, and dropping the company's "profit sharing" payments at the Joslin facility.
IBP spokesman Gary Mickleson said the company's 80-cent- per-hour proposal would have made up for the elimination of profit sharing, which was estimated to amount to over $800 per worker for 1996.
The nation's largest meatpacker, IBP earned a $257 million profit on sales of $12 billion in 1995. Its chairman, Robert Peterson, was given a $5.2 million bonus on top of his $1 million salary. Most IBP workers start jobs at $6.50-$7 hourly and top out at $10 an hour.
Following the workers' rejection of the 80-cent offer, IBP officials turned around and slashed their offer to 40 cents over four years. As of now, the company has not scheduled any further meetings with union representatives.
The November 13 Des Moines Register reported that IBP was farming out Joslin's work to other plants in the IBP chain.
At the strike headquarters for the local, picket signs in Spanish, English, Laotian, and Vietnamese are clearly visible to cars that drive into the parking lot. UFCW official Larry Shepard explained that the overwhelming majority of workers at the Joslin IBP plant are either immigrant or non-white. Roughly half the workforce is Latino and 20 percent of the workers are Vietnamese, other Asian nationalities, or Black. Having materials available in all four languages, Shepard said, is critical to the union's ability to remain united throughout the strike.
Militant reporters from Des Moines, Iowa, and Peoria, Illinois, drove out to the two IBP gates where workers are keeping up 24-hour picket lines. In spite of the bitter cold - made worst by brisk winds, and no shelters for strikers to take refuge in - the spirits of the unionists were high.
"People think we're doing this just to do it," responded Kelly Froberg, a 12-year IBP veteran, when asked why workers voted to strike. "But we're doing this because the workers at IBP deserve more."
Most workers on the picket line volunteered stories of their individual experiences at the plant to illustrate the overall conditions that led to the strike.
Robert Housby, who has worked at the Joslin plant for 10 years, said that 14 months after winning a job bid in the maintenance department, company officials told him he "was not qualified." They them attempted to garnish Housby's wages, claiming he was "overpaid during those 14 months."
Strikers told Militant reporters about attempts by the company to harass workers. A camera was installed in the cafeteria by the company following the second contract vote. The company also required that workers who went to the restroom during the last day of work be accompanied by supervisors.
Barb Ickes of the Quad Cities Times reported an incident where a tractor trailer intentionally hit a gate erected by the strikers. The Times reporter wrote, "Several logs, one the size of a fire hydrant, flew into the crowd of pickets. I still don't know how the logs missed us."
Ickes explained that within minutes of the semi leaving the gate, Illinois State Trooper Ronald Franck drove up and attempted to arrest one of the strikers.
As Franck tried to handcuff the striker, Ickes wrote, "all 23 pickets moved towards Trooper Franck. Almost immediately he let go of the small woman's wrist."
Shirley Peņa is a member of United Auto Workers Local 997
in Newton, Iowa. Richard McBride works at IBP in Perry, Iowa,
and is a member of UFCW 1149.
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