Workers at the Farmland Foods meatpacking plant in Carroll, Iowa, make a starting wage of $11 an hour. Workers at a similar plant owned by the same company 25 miles away in Denison, Iowa, make $14.60 an hour, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. That’s one of the reasons, according to UFCW spokesman Marc Goumbri, that in October a majority of the about 125 workers at the Carroll plant voted to join the UFCW Local 440.
Wage disparity with a nearby union plant was also a driving force behind another vote in a string of union election victories for the UFCW this fall. In an early November election, a majority (1292 to 824) of around 2,500 workers at a National Beef slaughterhouse and packing plant in Dodge City, Kansas, decided to join the UFCW Local 2. The union has long represented workers at a Cargill plant nearby. Goumbri told In These Times:
When you have a union facility that’s not far away, what you see is workers know from the get-go what having a union can mean for them and their families and the community—the wages at the union plant are much higher.
Goumbri said the National Beef election along with an October election at a JBS beef slaughterhouse in Plainwell, Mich., helped the union significantly bolster its “density” in the beef industry. The Michigan workers brought the UFCW’s total membership at JBS plants to about 28,000. Additionally, in September, about 300 workers at a Nebraska Prime kosher beef plant in Hastings, Neb., voted to join the union’s Local 293.
Now, Goumbri said, the UFCW represents about 60 percent of beef and about 72 percent of pork slaughterhouse and packing house workers nationwide. He told In These Times:
When a lot of workers are represented by a union in a particular industry, they use the strength they have in numbers to raise the floor for everyone… These are well-paying union jobs that come with wages and benefits – in the current economic state our communities are in desperate need of such jobs.
A 2008 article by Cornell University professor Richard Hurd about UFCW retail food (grocery) organizing notes that even when the union has a high concentration in a given sector, it needs a unified national bargaining strategy in order to effectively advocate for its members in changing, consolidated industries.
In the above four campaigns, the union said the employers agreed to remain neutral and allow a fair vote free of intimidation or other interference. Goumbri said this is not the norm in the industry or in general, but that in these cases the employers understood there was widespread support for unionization and that the employees were determined. He told In These Times:
Companies are still hell-bent on preventing workers from having a free and fair process. (Fair elections) come when companies see workers are really united and the workers just take a stand, and the company knows workers are determined to make that choice. These were workers who knew exactly what they wanted and knew what their rights were.
Slaughterhouses and packinghouses are significant targets for unionization, since the jobs are typically grueling and dangerous and often employ a high percentage of Latino immigrants and African refugees.
(Denison, site of the two Farmland Foods plants, made national news in 2002 when the skeletal remains of immigrants were found in a boxcar. Horrified and sympathetic residents noted the quickly growing Latino population drawn by the slaughterhouses, though it’s not clear the people in the boxcar were specifically bound for Denison.)
Goumbri said wages, benefits and conditions will all be the focus of contract negotiations at each workplace, with workers at the kosher slaughterhouse also prioritizing Sundays off (the plant is closed on Saturdays).
Goumbri said the National Beef unionizing campaign built momentum this year after workers attempted to organize last year in an effort that didn’t result in an election. The JBS election came after just several months of organizing, he said.
This blog originally appeared in Working in These Times on December 6, 2011. Reprinted with permission.
About this Author: Kari Lydersen is an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist whose works has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Revolt on Goose Island. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work. She can be reached at [email protected]