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Workers across Wisconsin mobilize for UFCW rally
Solidarity at Tyson Foods

By John Bayley | March 21, 2003 | Page 11

JEFFERSON, Wis.--Waving rubber chickens to the music of supportive honks from passing cars, striking Tyson Foods workers and their supporters rallied at the plant gate March 16. The crowd of 800 represented an outpouring of solidarity from unions across Wisconsin.

More than 450 members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 538 went on strike February 28 after they unanimously voted down a concession-filled contract. Tyson--the world's largest meat processor since acquiring IBP/Foodbrands--took over the Doskocil IBP Jefferson plant in 2001.

Tyson wants an average pay cut of 73 cents an hour and a wage freeze over four years; an increase in worker payments for health care coverage; a freeze on pension benefits for current workers and elimination of pension benefits for new hires; a 50 percent reduction in sick leave; a two-week cut in vacation benefits; and the elimination of health insurance supplements to retirees.

Tyson workers Vikki and Mark Bostwick have three children, including a newborn they brought with them to the picket. "We were forced to have our daughter two weeks early," said Vikki, who has worked at the plant for 16 years. "We asked the doctor to induce labor so we would be insured under our old insurance. Not only is Tyson asking us to pay $40 more a week for new insurance, but it also does not cover nearly as much as before. It's like a $3-an-hour pay cut."

"I hope we'll fix this soon," said Cervando Jimenez, who came from Mexico four years ago with his five children and his wife, who also works at Tyson. Jimenez is working with a green card and is hoping to become a citizen next year. He said 10 percent of Tyson's workforce is Latino.

"What happens here in Jefferson is important because it will affect workers across the country," says Pete Peterson, a 16-year employee. "When Tyson bought IBP, they gained about 60 plants across the country. They now control 25 percent of the meat-packing industry, and they want it all."

Mike Rice, Local 538's acting president, says Tyson is trying to bring higher-paid meat processors' pay in line with chicken processors--which will in turn affect upcoming contracts at other meat processing companies like Oscar Mayer and Jones.

Tyson is busing in scabs from far outside of rural Jefferson. When Tyson recently laid off 400 culinary workers in Chicago, they gave them flyers offering them work at the Jefferson plant.

Meat processing is notoriously dirty, difficult and dangerous work. Spending on wages and benefits only represents about 10 percent of product cost. But, as one sign on a giant papier-mâché chicken put it, Tyson is "Paying us chicken feed, treating us like chicken."

Send donations to UFCW Local 538 Strike Fund, 2228 Myrtle St., Madison, WI 53704.

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