Were so happy. There arent words to explain it, said Dakota worker Argelia Flores Díaz. Now we have to stay together and fight for a better contract that gives us better wages and respect.
The vote152 for the union and 82 againstwas an even greater margin of victory than the vote in 2000 that brought the union into the South St. Paul slaughterhouse. At that time workers responded to what they considered abusive conditions, especially the line speed, by organizing a sit- down strike in the lunchroom for more than seven hours. Coming out of that action, workers won union representation by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 789, and after an almost two-year fight, won their first contract.
With the end of this contract in June 2007, a company-backed petition was circulated at the plant in an effort to decertify the union. Over the next six months union supporters responded. Pro-union workers, including a number who were involved in the earlier fight to win the local and contract, talked up the history of the struggle in the plant. Local 789 officials visited workers homes. Workers produced the Workers Voice newsletter to answer company lies. The newsletter also publicized the bosses attacks on workers and steps unionists were taking to stop unjust firings and other retaliatory discipline. At one point a delegation of workers went to management demanding that they stop denying union representatives entry into the plant.
We needed to build momentum in the plant for this win, and we did it, said Local 789 president Don Seaquist. This goes beyond 789 and the UFCW. This is a message to workers that they have power.
The day before the election 40 union supporters gathered outside the factory entrance at the end of the work shift. Some workers joined as they exited the plant. Chanting Sí, se puede (Yes we can) and Union, Union, they greeted workers in the freezing cold. Dozens held signs urging Vote Yes. Two large banners were held up, one saying Union = Strength in Spanish and English. The week before, thirty union supporters had demonstrated at the same gate.
Reaction in the plant
The decertification election was held January 25. After union supporters counting ballots ran out of the trailer where the voting took place, word of the victory spread rapidly. Dozens of workers went to the Local 789 hall. Each was welcomed with cheers, hugs, high-fives, and pats on the back.
This is a big step. Now we have to work to get more people to participate in the union, said Oscar Salgado, 27, a worker in the boning department who has been at Dakota for 6 years. This is the way to go forward. I dont know how much stronger we are now. Well see as we go forward.
Workers immediately put out a new issue of the Workers Voice and distributed it on the job when they returned after the weekend. With a bold headline VICTORY!!!, the newsletter says: We told the bosses at Dakota Premium we would send them a strong message and we did! We voted 152 to 82 in favor of remaining organized in our Union! Now we will advance in our fight for a contract that includes better wages, working conditions and respect on the job. Today, all workers at Dakota Premiumthose who voted yes and those who voted noare united as members of the Union. Lets move forward together!
The newsletter also invited workers to the union hall on January 30 to discuss the next steps in our fight.
As news of the victory spread through the plant January 28, Sí, se puede echoed through locker rooms, hallways, and the lunchroom.
One person congratulated me but I told him we should all congratulate ourselves, said worker Ricardo Orozco. Some people will show you the thumbs down and one person tried to shout loudly against the union, but people at lunch booed him and told him to shut up.
Obdulia Flores, a kill floor worker with 11 years in the plant said that she thought that a number of workers who were against the union before are with us now. Others commented on how impressive the margin of victory was.
Some said they thought the bosses expected an easy win against the union. In the months leading up to the election, the company held very few meetings with workers. One antiunion leaflet was passed out twice in the last two weeks.
By contrast, the pro-union campaign included four issues of the Workers Voice in those two weeks, house visits, two demonstrations outside the plant, and ongoing one-on-one discussions among workers. In addition, pro-union workers got up to address their coworkers in the lunchroom in the days leading up to the vote.
Eddie Ferreira, who has worked in the boning department at Dakota for three years, pointed to the importance of the union campaign. He said the workers need to keep getting out the Workers Voice. This is better for all workers. Now were united to defend ourselves, he said. The bosses know they cant do anything they want. We always have to defend the union.
Carlos Samaniego is a member of UFCW Local 789 and works at Dakota Premium Foods. Rebecca Williamson, a trimmer at Dakota Premium and a member of Local 789, contributed to this article.
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