A stand against corporate greed in a Wisconsin town
September 12, 2003 | Page 6
FOR MORE than six months, the community of Jefferson, Wis., has stood up to the corporate greed of Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat producer. Workers at Tyson's meat processing plant in Jefferson--members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 538--went on strike February 28.
Driving through this town of 7,300, it's obvious that support for the strikers is overwhelming. Everywhere, there are signs in yards and shop windows in support of the strikers. Tyson is demanding that workers agree to have their pay and benefits cut to the bone--wage cuts, vacation cuts, sick time cuts, health care cuts, pension cuts. The list goes on and on, amounting to a 33 percent reduction in compensation. Here, ERIC RUDER looks at Tyson's corporate ruthlessness--and talks to workers involved in this fight for justice.
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ACROSS THE U.S., corporations are demanding that unions sacrifice hard-won gains for "the good of the company." Tyson--like others--is pushing for wage freezes, lower pay for new hires and higher insurance premiums from workers--claiming that "competition from abroad" and the "weak economy" leaves them no choice.
But even Tyson executives have to admit that they're not hurting. "We're not pleading poverty," said Ken Kimbro, Tyson's senior vice president for human resources. "We're not saying the Jefferson facility is losing money. We're saying the cost in Jefferson is out of line, and we have to make adjustments."
The truth is that Tyson, like other companies, is taking advantage of rising unemployment and a weak labor movement to extract higher profits from its workforce--at an enormous cost to workers.
During the last 20 years, as chicken consumption in the U.S. doubled, profits from the poultry industry shot up more than 300 percent. As a dominant player in the industry, Tyson reaped a lot of that windfall. But over the last 10 years, real wages for the roughly 250,000 workers in the industry remained stagnant, averaging $6.74 an hour.
In addition to low wages, the poultry industry systematically robbed workers of pay that they should have received by requiring them to work off the clock while putting on, removing or cleaning protective gear. In 2001, 6,000 workers in Alabama filed a lawsuit charging that Tyson owed them $100 million a year in unpaid labor. A year later, Perdue--another poultry giant--agreed to pay its workers $10 million in back wages to settle a similar accusation. A Justice Department study showed that 100 percent of poultry corporations they investigated--including Tyson--were guilty of wage and hours violations.
In 2001, the Justice Department also filed a 36-count indictment against Tyson Foods and six of its executives and managers, charging them with conspiracy to smuggle people from Mexico and Central America to work in 15 of its U.S. poultry plants. "This is a company with a bad history," said the Jim Lewis, who has helped poultry workers organize in the mid-Atlantic region since the 1980s. "They cheat these workers out of pay and benefits, and then try to keep them quiet by threatening to send them back to Mexico."
Some pay for the "privilege" of working for Tyson's low wages--with their lives. In 1999, seven Tyson workers died in workplace incidents--a year in which no other workers in the poultry industry died.
James Dame Jr. and Mike Hallum fell into an open pit of chicken byproducts--and suffocated from the methane gas emitted by the decomposing parts--at a Robards, Ky., facility. Another one of the seven killed by Tyson that year was a 15-year-old immigrant worker. "One teenager died and another suffered serious injuries because this company ignored the law," according to the Labor Department. "It was illegal for either one of them to be employed in the kind of work Tyson hired them to do."
You'd figure that Tyson might face some kind of harsh punishment for treating its workers as disposable. But you'd be wrong. In 1999, Tyson was fined $59,274 for child labor law violations at two plants.
Why doesn't a corporation as callous and brutal as Tyson get run out of business? Chiefly because Tyson Foods has long greased the palms of the "right people"--politicians and their underlings.
Based in Arkansas, Tyson had a close relationship with former Gov. Bill Clinton, whose many campaigns benefited from generous contributions from the company. When it was exposed for giving illegal gifts to Clinton's Secretary of Agriculture, Mike Espy, Tyson decided to pay $6 million in 1997 to settle the accusations--a handsome sum that tells you by comparison how little government bureaucrats value workers' lives.
Former CEO Don Tyson and current CEO John Tyson--then the vice chairman--were named as unindicted co-conspirators in the Espy scandal. Two other Tyson executives were eventually convicted and sent to prison. But they didn't stay there long--because Bill Clinton issued them pardons on his way out of the White House, a final "thank you" to Tyson for its support through the years.
It was only fitting that the corporate sleaze at Tyson would make a bid to purchase Iowa Beef Packers (IBP) in late 2000. IBP is the ruthless meatpacking company that pioneered union-busting in an industry that once paid some of the highest wages of any industrial job in the U.S.
In the 1960s, IBP put its slaughterhouses near rural feedlots where cattle were fattened for market--far away from the urban centers where unions had their base. Using cheap labor on an assembly line to turn sides of beef into ready-to-sell cuts, the company simultaneously de-skilled meatpacking, ran the unions out, and made skilled union butchers who worked in grocery stores obsolete.
Other meatpackers followed suit over the years, turning the industry into one of the most dangerous in the U.S. The relentless speed of the assembly lines and management inattention to safety means that hundreds upon hundreds of workers have been suddenly disabled when they lost fingers or limbs in the machinery. Thousands more have had their bodies worn down and crippled by repetitive stress injuries--because of the intense pressure of an assembly line that requires workers to make thousands of the same motions every day, eight hours a day, week in, week out.
Tyson seems to have decided on demanding concessions from its Jefferson plant, formerly owned by IBP, precisely because conditions are "out of step" with the sweatshop environment elsewhere in the industry. But workers in Jefferson are standing up to Tyson and fighting to preserve their hard-won contract.
Unfortunately, the UFCW has been slow to mobilize the kind of support that can escalate the pressure on Tyson. Such a strategy would depend upon the solidarity of other workers and the surrounding community to help shut down Tyson's scabbing operation and bring operations at the plant to a halt--through aggressive picketing and sit-ins at the factory gate. This would force Tyson to the table in a hurry.
Over the last decade, workers in other strikes have shown equal amounts of sacrifice and determination as the Tyson workers. But they were defeated because they failed to stop scab herding operations. Such a campaign can't be built overnight. But it can--and must--be started in the here and now.
Tyson strikers and supporters speak out
IT'S AMAZING. We're going into the sixth month, and we're getting even more support from other locals. It shows that people think we're fighting the good fight.
Once it went past three months, I realized that we were in this for the long haul. They're not even coming back with proposals, so it's clear that they're trying to bust the union altogether.
So some days, it's tough. I'm used to going to work every day, and now it can be hard to get motivated. But then you go to a meeting--like the meeting of Jefferson County supervisors where they voted to honor our boycott--and it fires you up again.
It's very emotional, and when you get positive results, it's a great lift. You've got to rely on each other--and you have to boost each other on the picket lines when you do have questions. And you do have questions, but I think it'll be worth it in the long run.
My base wage is $12.90, and I'm supporting an 11-year-old daughter and 9-year-old twin boys. So I'm on a budget. I clip coupons, we watch for sales to go shopping. And they're talking about $9 an hour. There's no way I could raise a family on that.
But that's what Tyson has had in their poultry plants for years--with a 200 percent turnover rate annually. That's what you're going to get at $9 an hour, and that's what they're getting with the scabs now. They're trying to make us fear for our jobs.
Big corporations are trying to take advantage. Let's face it--there are not a lot of jobs out there, and corporations know it. If they were losing money, maybe we could live with some part of this. But they're not losing money. This plant here made $24 million. It makes you feel all the more committed to keep going, because you know that they don't have any legitimacy in their proposals since they're making profits and increasing CEO pay as much as they are.
THEY'RE TRYING to take away our pensions. I'm 41 years old, and I've got another 24 years to go before I can retire. What am I supposed to work for? To take a chance on my 401k? You've seen the stock markets.
I might as well take the money now and spend it, and then kill myself when I'm 65 and be done with it. There's no guarantee I can count on Social Security. You don't know what Medicare is going to be like. Twenty-four years from now, who knows? It's ridiculous.
The other plant that's making most of the pepperoni [the Jefferson plant's main product] is down in Hutchinson, Kansas. It's getting shipped up here, and then they put our establishment number on there. They're doing most of the work at a nonunion plant there, shipping it here almost completed, and doing a couple things here, stamping it.
That's because Kraft--our number one supplier here--has certified only this Tyson plant to produce pepperoni for its products. What a scheme!
IT'S REALLY important for the Tyson workers to win their struggle because we might face the same problem in Omaha. We want all the support that we can get, so we're giving it now. Now that we have a union, we see that the owners, the managers, the supervisors all treat us better. If the Tyson strikers win, that helps us. And it's not fair what Tyson is trying to do--all the benefits that they want to take away from the workers.
We've been in the union for one year. We had an election three years ago, and we lost by 125. And the second time, we won by the same margin that we had lost by before. Fighting for workers' rights is parallel to the fight for immigrants' rights. When immigrants cross the border, many die. And here, with everything that companies are trying to do to their workers, it's a very similar struggle.
THEY'RE TRYING to take the same benefits away from the Tyson workers that they're taking away from us at the Congress Hotel. It's an injustice.
They cut our wages 7 percent, took the health benefit and took the retirement benefits. No American should have to work under the conditions that these companies want us to work under. We're supposed to be moving ahead, not backwards, but it's like we're going back to slavery. The country is telling all workers that they have to move backwards.
They're willing to spend millions to put a shuttle into space, but that's irrelevant to the people who are already here on Earth. We're fighting just to get something less than what we had before.
Some people have had these jobs in Jefferson for 25 or 30 years, but I don't care if you've only worked somewhere one year, you've put something into the company. You made that company more than you got out of it.