BY SHIRLEY PEŃA AND BILL KALMAN
PLANT CITY, Florida - Some 540 workers at the Smithfield/Lykes meat-processing plant walked out and shut production down at midnight on April 12. The workers are organized by United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 1625, whose contract expired on March 29. Plant City is just outside Tampa.
"They say we get paid too much, but we say let's open their books!" Patsy Addamson told the Militant. Addamson is a machine operator with over 11 years at the plant.
Lykes Meat Group, a division of agribusiness giant Smithfield Foods based in Norfolk, Virginia, purchased the plant from Lykes Brothers in 1996. Smithfield, a major hog producer, pork processor, and meat marketer, continues to manufacture and sell Lykes brand processed meats under a trademark agreement. The most recent offer from company negotiators was a 21-month contract with no pay raises. The union is seeking a three-year contract with 25 cents a year in raises over the life of the contract. Workers start at $5.75/hour, and average around $8/hour; workers in the maintenance department top out at $11.55/hour.
Though this was the first strike ever at the plant, this was not the first strike for all workers on the picket line. Darrin Dimmock said he was on strike months at the Boeing plant in Wichita, Kansas, several years ago. Roy Lowe was part of a work stoppage at Colt Firearms in New Haven, Connecticut.
"They are out to break the union," Lowe declared. "If they succeed, it won't stop here. Just like if we win, it won't stop here."
The number of pickets range from 50 to 150 per shift. Production has ground to a virtual standstill. The company, which has seen only nine workers cross the picket line, has been trying to hire scabs through temp agencies. Union members have organized to reach these workers at the company "hiring sessions," explaining the issues in the strike. The local's strike newsletter reported that many were convinced to not accept employment at Lykes during the strike. Pickets at the gate also reported that some of the temporary workers who crossed the line joined the 24-hour picket line after spending eight hours inside the plant.
Union officials report that many unionists from the Tampa area have come to Plant City to show support for the strike, including members from the Teamsters union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, postal workers, the Steelworkers union, Ironworkers, and the Bakers and Confectionery Workers union.
Several of the strikers sitting around a picnic table at the plant-gate told the Militant that Smithfield had steadily increased the line speeds inside the plant, which before the strike pushed 10,000 pounds of meat through every 30 minutes. Workers loaded 960 pounds of hot-dogs onto pallets in 12 minutes. Shirley Dixon, with 15 years at Lykes, explained how working in the freezer for six days a week, 10 hours a day, takes its toll on people. In spite of that, "We get no sick pay, no sick days. Get three write-ups for absenteeism and they fire you. The company tries to mess with your dignity."
José Chávez, a Mexican worker with seven years at the plant, said the company began to hire non-English-speaking Latino immigrant workers, presumably to act as a strike- breaking force. "But the company pushes the workers who don't speak English and they push the line speed and the amount of work," Chávez said. Almost all of the Spanish- speaking workers are now enthusiastic supporters of the strike.
Bill Kalman is a member of United Transportation Union
Local 1128; Shirley Peńa is a member of International
Association of Machinists Local 368, both in Miami. Dale
Younce of Tampa contributed to this article.
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