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Vol. 72/No. 6      February 11, 2008

Chicago meat packers win back pay settlement
CHICAGO, January 24—“We achieved a victory today for ourselves and for all other workers who face the same thing that happened to us,” said Rufino Peña, a former worker at the American Meat Packing Corp. plant on Chicago’s South Side. He was referring to the settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed in 2002 on behalf of him and other former workers at that South Side plant, the city’s last major hog slaughterhouse.

Since the plant shut down in 2001, former AMPAC workers had been fighting for back pay and benefits lost after the company shut down without giving them the legally mandated 60-day notice.

The settlement terms signed by an attorney for Daniel Ochylski, owner of now-bankrupt AMPAC and Pinnacle Food Group, requires $175,000 to be paid to the workers and their attorney, Jorge Sánchez. As many as 326 workers, most of whom were members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, will get equal shares of the $160,000 that will be left after the attorney’s fee is paid.

The workers’ suit was brought under provisions of a federal law called the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act (WARN), which requires companies to give two months’ notice before closing plants. AMPAC tried to take advantage of an exception allowing for “unforeseeable” business conditions, in this case, the November 2001 suspension of inspections by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after many USDA warnings that, unless unsanitary conditions resulting in adulterated meat were corrected, enforcement action would begin.

Peña was one of 11 former AMPAC workers present on January 23 or 24 in the federal court building here as Judge Charles Norgle supervised settlement negotiations. These and other workers had organized protests and mass meetings following the abrupt closing of the plant on Nov. 16, 2001.

In response to Norgle’s urging that a settlement be reached so the trial and further litigation could be avoided, the workers present agreed with attorney Sánchez that it was in their best interests.

Michael Faison, who had worked on the kill floor, led off the conference room discussion that resulted in the workers’ decision to support a settlement. “It’s not right that we can’t get more money; we deserve more than what’s being offered. But if we can’t get more, yes, we should settle because this thing could go on for a long time and we could end up losing and getting absolutely nothing,” he said.

This writer, who had also worked on the kill floor at AMPAC, agreed with Faison and others arguing to settle, noting that Ochylski was getting a slap on the wrist that would serve as a warning to other bosses.

Other workers reached by phone concurred, in some cases with exclamations of “Settle!” although no one was happy with the amount of money being wrung out of the owners.

The judge set February 15 for attorneys in the case to return to court to agree on the wording of a letter that will go out to all the former employees and the scheduling of a “fairness” hearing a month or so later. According to attorney Sánchez, the former AMPAC workers covered by the suit can expect to receive their checks several months after the “fairness” hearing.

Joel Britton worked on the kill floor at AMPAC plant until its closing in 2001.  
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