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   Vol. 67/No. 37           October 27, 2003  
Tyson workers rally in contract fight
JEFFERSON, Wisconsin—The strike by meat packers at Tyson Foods is not only for unionists there, “but for all workers around the country,” said Mike Rice, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 538.

Rice was speaking at a September 28 rally of about 250 people to support the workers at Tyson, who have been on strike for more than seven months against the company’s take-back demands.

A feature of the rally was the participation of two busloads of unionists and immigrant rights activists from Minneapolis who were taking part in the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride.

“Welcome, folks,” Rice told them when they arrived amid cheers and applause. “This caravan is to tell the companies: ‘Quit exploiting the minorities.’”

“We are doing what you are doing—fighting for our rights,” Rafael Espinoza, one of the Freedom Riders, told the rally. “We are fighting for our right to a livable wage. It is not only for immigrant workers but for all workers. This nation is represented by different people, and Tyson represents the greedy people.”

The strikers and their supporters at the rally expressed determination to resist the employers’ demands for steep concessions. “One day longer, one day stronger!” they chanted.

The union has called a number of rallies here since the meat packers walked out February 28. They are standing up to the bosses’ drive to cut hourly rates for new-hires from $11.09 to $9.00 and freeze pay for others over a four-year period. The employers are also pressing to eliminate pensions for new-hires and freeze benefits for the rest; increase health-care premiums by as much as $40 a week and eliminate medical supplements for retirees; cut sick leave and disability benefits by more than half; reduce vacations; eliminate two paid holidays for new hires; and end the “profit-sharing” program.  
Truth Squads reach out for support
“We can’t do it by ourselves and we know that,” Rice told the demonstrators. He said that thanks to the teams of workers, known as Truth Squads, who have traveled to other cities to seek solidarity, “we have support from other unions around the country.”

Nancy Thrasher, one of the strikers, said in an interview that the previous week she had been on a Truth Squad trip to a meatpacking plant in Nebraska that had been purchased by Tyson Foods. “There are 3,000 workers at the IBP plant there, who are mostly Latino and nonunion,” she said. “We handed out informational flyers about our strike in Spanish. A lot of people told us they wanted a union there. They work under bad conditions. When people have accidents and are injured, they are sent back to work.”

The Tyson bosses, she said, want to “bring us down to their level instead of bringing them up to ours.”

Keith Griep, another Truth Squad veteran, said, “We had seven Truth Squads sent out last week with five people on each team.” He was on the team that went to the nonunion IBP plant owned by Tyson in Garden City, Kansas. “There are about 3,000 workers at that beef plant. We lasted about one hour and passed out about 600-700 flyers before we were kicked off the location by company security.”

During the rally, Rice reported that Local 538’s Adopt-A-Family program had received contributions from UFCW locals across the country. He said several unions sent weekly donations, including the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, United Auto Workers, Teamsters, and UFCW locals in Seattle, New York, Montana, and Phoenix, Arizona.

Don Seaquist, president of UFCW Local 789 in St. Paul, Minnesota, which represents 8,000 workers, told demonstrators, “We’re not going away until you guys get a contract.” Workers at the Dakota Premium meatpacking plant in St. Paul, members of Local 789, waged a successful union-organizing battle there in recent years.

Another speaker, Joe Hayes, chief shop steward at the Tyson facility in Cherokee, Iowa, said the union’s contract there ends in March 2004. He said their stance toward the company is, “If you are offering us the same thing [as at the Jefferson plant], we will say the same thing as in Jefferson.”  
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