RCC Honors History Project

The Kill-Floor Rebellion

Posted by mcelynrh on June 2, 2009

An alliance of a union and a community group may have found the way to reorganize the meatpacking industry — and the Latino immigrant workers in small-town America.
David Bacon | June 30, 2002

St. Agnes church and its sister parish, our Lady of Guadalupe, are the heart of south Omaha, Nebraska. Every Sunday, hundreds of packinghouse workers — Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans — dress up in their best clothes and stream through St. Agnes’ doors for Spanish-language mass. The men take off their wide-brimmed sombreros as mothers call out to little girls in frilly dresses who run giggling through the aisles.

On the last Sunday in April, the parish priest, Father Damian Zuerlein, began the service by addressing the subject on everyone’s mind: the coming election at the ConAgra beef plant. Standing at the altar, he acknowledged the many ConAgra workers in the congregation. “We say, there’s nothing new under the sun — some people have a great deal, while others have nothing,” he said. “Our community knows the unequal treatment of the poor, and the time has come to make a decision.”

Then he introduced the plant’s union committee. Olga Espinoza, who works on the kill floor, made her way to the head of the church and described the accidents she’d seen in her eight years on the line. “We’ve made our decision and we won’t take one step backwards,” she announced. “I want everyone to stand who’s for the union.” A couple of dozen workers slowly rose from the pews. Disappointed, Espinoza huddled at the back of the church with Sergio Sosa, a Guatemalan organizer for Omaha Together One Community (OTOC).

As the mass concluded, Espinoza came forward again to give it another try, asking workers from the plant to come forward to get Father Damian’s blessing. “Don’t be afraid,” she urged them. “This is our moment. No one’s going to stop us this time.”

Slowly, out of the first pews, men and women began shuffling toward the center aisle. In a ripple spreading to the back of the church, more people stood and moved down toward the front. After a few minutes, more than a hundred workers were on their feet, some with obvious trepidation visible on their faces. From that moment on, their support for the union would no longer be a secret. “We knew if we could stand up in the church on Sunday,” Espinoza said later, “we could do it in the plant on Monday.”

And that’s what happened. The following Wednesday, just two days before actual voting was due to begin, the company made its final play. Supervisors called a mandatory meeting, where workers would listen to a ConAgra vice president tell them why going union was a bad idea.

A year before, the same speech by the same vice president to many of the same workers had turned the tide for the company. Workers had decisively rejected the union. But this time, when the kill-floor workers walked into the lunchroom, the atmosphere had changed. Almost before the vice president began speaking, employees in attendance say, workers were hooting and yelling.

As the vice president finished recounting how the company had lived up to its promises of a year ago, Espinoza walked to the front and told the managers she wanted to speak; she and her fellow activists had formulated a list of questions. Pushing her way to the microphone, she commenced. “If you’re so concerned about us,” she all but shouted, “why haven’t you fixed the place where Tiberio fell and was hurt? Are you waiting for someone else to get hurt too?” (Tiberio Chavez, a ConAgra worker repairing broken equipment, had fallen from a precarious perch just beneath the plant’s ceiling. His forearm had to be fitted with so many steel pins that he looked a little like the Terminator. An open union supporter, he was then fired.)

At first the managers just looked at one another, each waiting for someone else to speak. Then Maria Valentin, the community-relations coordinator, took the microphone. “She told us she couldn’t answer the question right there,” Espinoza recalled, “but she’d give the answer to anyone who came by her office later on. No one liked that. We began chanting, ‘Now! Now!’ Then they told us there wasn’t any more time for questions and to go back to work. We just hooted them down.”

That Friday, 251 ConAgra workers voted for the union, with 126 voting against. After the vote, company officials would credit the mass for turning the tide against them. They weren’t far wrong. It was the moment when the workers’ culture and religious faith combined to create a sense of security that couldn’t easily be broken by the normal repertoire of anti-union tactics.

But the mass was also a visible symbol of something deeper: a long-term coalition between a union and a community-based organizing project, with a goal that goes far beyond organizing just that one plant. The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Omaha Together One Community want to reorganize the almost entirely immigrant workforce in the almost entirely nonunion meatpacking industry throughout the city. And what works in Omaha may work elsewhere too, in the dozens of one-plant packinghouse towns, where pigs and cows get killed and sliced up into what’s for dinner in America.

The people who do that work are, and have always been, immigrants. For a hundred years, straight through the 1970s, those workers were overwhelmingly European, with smaller numbers of African Americans, especially in the South. Today, Spanish is the language on the floor of almost every plant. Most workers come from Mexico, with smaller numbers from Central America. Refugees from Bosnia, Vietnam, and even the Sudan are a growing presence in some areas, but the vast majority of meatpacking workers are Latinos. A huge demographic shift has taken place in the meatpacking workforce nationally, and small towns throughout the Plains states and the South suddenly have barrios, Mexican grocery stores, and radio stations that play norteño and banda music.

The language of organizing has changed. The problems haven’t.

Meatpacking unions in Omaha go back more than a hundred years, and their uneasy relationship with immigrants and workers of color is almost as old. The city’s meatpacking industry was built at the turn of the century by immigrants from Bohemia, Poland, and Lithuania. Because they were Catholics, the Church played a major role in their battles even then. In the strike of 1921-1922, the priest of the Polish church in south Omaha spoke for the strikers. Their main organizer, John Blaha, ran meetings in Czech as well as English. African-American workers were already a significant presence in the plants, and some were elected officers of local unions.

In the late 1930s, the organizing drives of the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA) succeeded in unionizing the four largest packers of the day. The union, one of the most radical in the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), was built on a tradition of rank-and-file democracy, industrial unionism, and militant struggle. The model worked: Master contracts covering beef and pork processors set a wage standard above that of most manufacturing workers.

The UPWA viewed unions as a social-movement, fighting for community demands outside the plant as well. Locals organized antidiscrimination committees in the plants and challenged the color lines barring blacks from many bars and restaurants in south Omaha (policies were later labeled “Communist” in the 1950s).

Eventually the UPWA merged with its onetime American Federation of Labor (AFL) rival, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, and then with the Retail Clerks International Union, to form the modern UFCW. Each successive merger created a larger but somewhat more conservative union. But the ideas of social movement unionism left a lasting imprint in the meatpacking unions — one that the UFCW/OTOC coalition hopes to revive.

By the 1990s, when Latino immigrants began flocking to the plants, the industry had become unrecognizable. From 1980 to 1982, during the most serious recession since the thirties, 30 factories were shuttered and contract concessions became the order of the day. From the wreckage emerged a new group of meat conglomerates — led by Tyson, ConAgra, and Cargill — that today account for nearly 80 percent of all the cattle and 60 percent of the hogs slaughtered in the country. In the 1980s, these new conglomerates built new plants far from the big cities, and cut costs by attacking the union. Strikes such as the one against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, rocked the meatpacking world, as workers sought to hold on to the master agreements. Today, though the UFCW continues to represent 60 percent of the meatpacking workforce nationally, its power to set wage standards has badly eroded.

The nature of the work inside the plants has changed, too. Prior to 1980, animals were slaughtered in urban packinghouses. Quarters of meat were then shipped to markets, where skilled butchers cut them into pieces for consumers. The new companies changed that system dramatically. After slaughter, animals are now cut apart on fast-moving disassembly lines, where an individual worker might cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Boxes of meat sliced into consumer-sized chunks are then shipped to market. The speed of the lines in the plants increased enormously, and as workers repeated the same motions over and over again, injury rates skyrocketed. (Jorge Ramirez, a ConAgra worker who turned out cartoons for the organizing committee’s newsletter, produced one celebrated drawing that featured a worker chasing a carcass down the line in a little car and, as the line’s speed control moves from “fast” to “over the top,” running over another worker in his haste to keep up.)

In Omaha today, the old monopolies have disappeared, their places taken by the new nonunion plants of ConAgra, Greater Omaha Packing Company, Nebraska Beef, QPI, and MPS. Hourly meatpacking wages had fallen to $4 below the manufacturing average by 1999. The entry-level hourly wage in ConAgra’s Omaha plant is $9.20, not much higher than the meatpacking wage of 20 years ago.

The low wages are partly a function of the companies’ immigrant strategy. They’ve sent recruiting teams to Los Angeles and other established immigrant communities, advertised on radio stations along the Mexican border, and sent buses to pick up recruits as they cross over.

Nebraska Beef was one of the most active recruiters. Last year the Justice Department indicted four upper-level managers for giving workers false immigration documents. U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf dismissed the charges in April, ruling that the witnesses who might have testified for the company were deported in an immigration raid on December 5, 2000.

On that day, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents showed up at the south Omaha factory. Supervisors stopped the line and herded workers into the lunchroom where the agents were waiting. In some departments, company managers helped workers escape, according to Jaime Arias, an employee then inside the plant. He and his friends hid in a cooler among the animal carcasses. “Some people stayed there for five hours,” he recalls, “and when they finally came out they were almost dead from the cold.” In total, 212 workers — out of a workforce of less than 1,000 — were picked up in the raid.

Managers told the remaining workers to report the following day, but some were afraid to return; they were fired. According to Arias, the company then increased the workload of its remaining employees.

With worker discontent at Nebraska clearly running high, the UFCW/OTOC alliance targeted the company for unionization, and encountered an aggressive anti-union campaign. “One supervisor told me that if we had a union, the company wouldn’t make enough money to keep all the workers,” says Jose Juan Robles, one of the union’s leaders. He heard other threats of closure and blacklisting, and promises of wage increases to those who voted against the union.

In an election held last August, the union lost 452-to-345. The National Labor Relations Board, however, invalidated the results after documenting company misconduct. After the campaign was over, Robles was fired. (Telephone calls to Nebraska Beef seeking comment were not returned.)

It quickly became apparent to Omaha’s union organizers — as to their counterparts elsewhere — that the old models of organizing are not very successful when dealing with this new workforce. The standard speeches about wages and benefits don’t inspire workers, who are still sending money to their families back home, to risk their jobs, much less face deportation. Confronted with a brick wall, OTOC began developing a new model: a community-based approach to organizing.

In 1990, Father Zuerlein requested and received the position of pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in south Omaha. Zuerlein was a leading figure among a group of priests who shared a background in liberation theology and a commitment to help organize the communities of Latino meatpacking workers throughout the Midwest. Zuerlein soon hooked up with Tom Holler, who’d started OTOC as a project of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Founded in the 1940s by organizer Saul Alinsky, the IAF started life by organizing meatpacking workers in Chicago’s back-of-the-yards neighborhoods. Early on, it developed a strategic alliance with the Church in struggles for civil rights and economic justice. But workplace organizing and union alliances are not typical activities for most IAF affiliates.

In 1998, as OTOC was groping for an effective strategy, Zuerlein and Holler hired a new organizer, Sergio Sosa. For more than a decade, before moving to the Midwest, Sosa had been a seminarian in Guatemala and an active member of the movement that organized Mayan peasants during that nation’s genocidal war. In Omaha’s meatpacking plants, Sosa encountered an immigrant Latino workforce consisting of both documented and undocumented workers, often in the same families, who all formed part of a broad network of relationships. The OTOC strategy called for using those networks to organize first outside the plant — setting up soccer leagues, for instance.

Sosa began holding one-on-one meetings with workers, as he put it, “to create relations with people, discover their interests, look for talents, identify leaders and connect those leaders in order to begin to organize. We know who people pay attention to, and where they go on Sunday after mass. We spend time together. But I think the art is to connect this whole cultural structure of social networks with African Americans, with Anglo Saxons and others, in order to create power. Latinos can do many things and this is our moment. But we can’t do it alone.”

The first OTOC committees, however, were wiped out by Operation Vanguard, the 1999 INS raids that targeted every meatpacking plant in Nebraska. It was during the ensuing controversy that OTOC developed its relationship with the UFCW. These were, however, two very different cultures. At first, Holler and Zuerlein had trouble connecting with local UFCW officials, who “wanted to know who we were and why we were so interested in working with them,” Zuerlein recalls. But the UFCW was changing. At the time of the raids, the Omaha local criticized the INS for failing to allow the union to represent workers caught up in the process. In other parts of the country, though, the UFCW still supported employer sanctions, which make it a crime for undocumented immigrants to hold a job.

At the same time, other unions with heavily immigrant memberships were spearheading a campaign that led the AFL-CIO to repudiate its historic support for sanctions and to call for their repeal. Partly as a result of the union’s experience in Omaha, UFCW Secretary-Treasurer Joe Hansen announced that the UFCW, too, supported that call.

For their part, the Omaha workers didn’t leap into the union’s arms. After an extended colloquy with UFCW officials, and a contentious debate among themselves, the OTOC committee voted 13-to-7 to join forces with the union. Those who voted no left OTOC, but an alliance — of equals — had been struck between the community organization and the union.

As the alliance took shape, worker committees were organized in each of the separate plants. Carl Ariston, the organizer assigned by the UFCW to the Omaha campaign, credited the one at ConAgra with the May election victory. While the UFCW had four organizers assigned to the campaign, and OTOC two more, the campaign wasn’t an organizer-driven one (unlike many of those currently mounted by unions). “The committee did most of the work of [getting workers’ signatures on union-recognition] cards and getting people active, talking inside the plant and going with organizers on house calls,” says Ariston. The committee also wrote and distributed an in-plant newsletter and broadcast union appeals on Spanish-language radio.

The mass, too, was the workers’ idea, according to Zuerlein. “They needed a spiritual space where they wouldn’t be afraid, and [they knew that] what we’re doing has a long tradition. We’re showing them even if they lose their job, they’re part of a broader community that will support them.”

Although employers often refuse to sign contracts with unions that their employees have voted for, there’s a good chance that workers will be able to negotiate a first contract with ConAgra. Seventy-eight ConAgra plants are already under contract, Ariston notes, “and the company doesn’t look at unions as evil.” At Nebraska Beef, though, getting a first contract may require a war.

But beyond these immediate contract problems, two larger dilemmas are rapidly approaching. As more Omaha plants are organized, hundreds of new Latino members are going to pour into UFCW Local 271. Since the closure of Omaha’s older plants, the union now has fewer than 1,000 members, most of whom aren’t immigrants and don’t speak Spanish. Its new members come to the union after an organizing drive that they themselves carried out and helped to steer. They are not likely to be content simply paying dues as passive members. “These immigrant workers are going to be a challenge for the union,” Zuerlein predicts. Ariston responds that the UFCW is sending teams of trainers to establish a strong rank-and-file steward structure that will represent workers on the factory floor.

Securing wage increases is the union’s other major challenge. The new members’ expectations will run headlong into an industry accustomed to relying on immigrants for cheap labor. “By bringing in minority workers,” Ariston says, “the companies feel they don’t have to be real about wage rates. Because many of these workers have had to live with a lot less, the companies believe they’ll be satisfied with less.”

So the union is confronted with a fight that is both a challenge and an opportunity. Should it fail to mount a successful drive for dramatically better wages and conditions, alliances such as the one with OTOC won’t be enough to win the long-term loyalty of this new workforce. But if the Omaha model succeeds — and spreads to the other packinghouse towns of the Plains states and the South — the union’s new participatory methods of organizing and its broad social agenda may just provide the basis for a major challenge to the entire low-wage economy of meatpacking.

Those were the basic approaches of the UPWA in its heyday, 60 years ago, when it won master agreements and organized virtually the entire industry. That history may be coming to life again in Omaha.

http://www.prospect.org/cs/articles?article=the_killfloor_rebellion

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