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Teamsters Local 556 face decertification vote in Pasco, Wash.
Tyson takes aim at union

By Elizabeth Schulte | February 11, 2005 | Page 11

PASCO, Wash.--Rank-and-file activists here are fighting a life-and-death battle for their union against Tyson Food, the largest--and meanest--meat and poultry processor in the world.

On February 9-11, 1,500 mostly immigrant workers represented by Teamsters Local 556 at Tyson's Pasco plant will vote on whether to keep their union. This is the second such vote pushed by Tyson since April 2004, when Tyson lost its first decertification attempt by a vote of 708 to 657.

Last month, Human Rights Watch singled out Tyson's Pasco plant in a report on human-rights abuses in the meatpacking industry, citing that Tyson "openly and aggressively interfered with workers' efforts to maintain their union." The Pasco plant's injury rates were almost three times the industry average.

"This is a job that used to pay a living wage," Teamsters Local 556 representative Traven Leyshon told Socialist Worker. "It was primarily rural white workers, and there was a time when people made roughly twice what they make today in terms of real wages. Beginning in the 1980s, the work was reorganized. IBP [Iowa Beef Processing, the company that owned the Pasco plant until Tyson took over in 2001] really led the way in rolling back working conditions--speeding up the production line, hiring large numbers of immigrant workers because they felt these workers would be more vulnerable."

About 80 percent of the workers at the Pasco plant are Latino, and the workers come from some 21 different countries.

Members find themselves isolated because the unions representing workers at Tyson's other unionized plants--the United Food and Commercial Workers and other Teamster locals--have already settled their contracts.

In 2002, Tyson backed a candidate to run against shop floor leader Maria Martinez in union elections. After the company candidate lost--with Martinez winning 70 percent of the vote--the candidate went on to gather signatures on a decertification petition. He was later promoted to supervisor.

"Until the workers self-organized around 1998, they had a union leadership that never appeared in the plant," explained Leyshon. "Latino workers who were inspired by the apple organizing campaign in Central Washington at the time and saw the possibility of bettering their lot at work and began to self-organize."

The workers had the support of the then reform president of the Teamsters, Ron Carey, and Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

In 1999, workers led a successful wildcat strike at the plant. Soon after, the International, by then headed by James P. Hoffa, put the local in trusteeship to prevent activists from winning a union election. But when the local election was finally held, members elected the reformers.

Today, the local is again fighting for its future. About 400 workers are on layoff, while others have their time cut to four days a week. In one-on-one meeting, management has threatened that if workers vote for union, the plant could be closed. The largest local Hispanic paper, La Voz--financially backed by Tyson--has carried front-page articles charging the union with corruption.

But the most effective weapon that Tyson has used against Local 556 is its refusal to negotiate a new contract since the old one expired in May.

Local 556 activists are working to combat employer propaganda and unite the members. Members brought in a banner that said "United we win" that was signed by workers in Vietnamese, Spanish, Bosnian, Arabic and other languages. Members are wearing pro-union stickers on their hardhats at work and doing home visits to get out the vote.

"The solidarity has been incredible," Leyson said. "We have bilingual volunteers from other Teamster locals who have come to assist. We have collected 4,000 signatures of community supporters across the country to tell worker that they are not alone."

Local 556 is also receiving support from Jobs with Jobs and state and national AFL-CIO. A rally of 400 workers and community activists was held on January 29. "After we vote yes in this election, we can finish the job," Maria Martinez told the crowd. "We can negotiate higher salaries to pay for our health insurance, to have language to protect injured workers."

Send your statements of support to [email protected]. Send donations to: Teamsters Local 556, 1750 Portland Ave., Walla Walla, WA 99362

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