Two days later, a front-page article in the Modesto Bee reported claims by the company that it had fired scores of unionists who had participated in the walkouts. Workers told the Militant, however, that when they returned to work November 21 they still had their jobs, though some were demoted.
They called me into the office and said, You participated in the demonstrations, so you are no longer a lead person, said Raj Brinder Dhaliwal, who has worked at the plant for 26 years and is a longtime supporter of the union. I said OK. Nobody was fired and those who were demoted filed charges against the company with the union. People are not worried or afraid.
Federico Avila is a 32-year veteran in the plant and third vice president of the League of Independent Workers of the San Joaquin Valley, the union organizing the workers at Foster Farms. The company wants a nonunion open shop, to be able to get rid of somebody when they get hurt, Avila told the Militant. They dont care about the people. They just want to get the product out. We did the right thing coming together to win the union.
About 2,000 workers are employed here, one of the largest poultry plants in the United States, processing half a million chickens per day.
Unity among workers from Mexico; Punjab, India; and other nationalities has been key in preventing the bosses from carrying out large-scale victimization of union supporters as the struggle unfolds.
A number of workers who have been fighting for many years to forge a strong union at this plant organized an election in October 2003 decertifying the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). They initiated this action when UFCW officials, after a 17-day walkout in 1997, negotiated a contract that included only a 70-cent wage raise over five years and higher payments by workers for health-care coverage. The workers then organized the League as their new union, which got a majority vote in a November 2004 election.
Deteriorating health benefits and low wages are the main issues in the struggle. Since 1993, workers have gotten annual average hourly wage increases of 12 cents. Over this period, costs for medical coverage have jumped, including a $25 charge for each doctor visit as well as large deductibles.
To strengthen their ability to negotiate a contract, the League affiliated with the International Association of Machinists earlier this year. Foster Farms has refused to recognize this affiliation, which the bosses call illegal.
The company doesnt want to recognize us because we know what we are doing, following the right procedures, Avila said. We feel confident we are going to win.
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