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Hold The Pepperoni: Tyson Workers On Strike
S triking meatpackers in Jefferson, Wisconsin have their collective finger in a dyke. Their strike and boycott of Tyson-made pizza toppings is virtually all that stands between thousands of workers in the beef and pork industry and a massive downgrade of wages and benefits proposed by meat processing giant Tyson Foods. It’s an unusual tactic, boycotting part of a product that most consumers see as a package deal, but the 470 pepperoni-makers say their employer’s outrageous demands have driven them to say, “Hold the pepperoni.”
Known for many years as the largest poultry processing corporation in the world, at least three times the size of its closest competitor, Arkansas-based Tyson Foods took over 20 beef and pork processing plants in 2001 when it bought out IBP Fresh Meats, formerly Iowa Beef Processing. Tyson now owns roughly one-quarter of the entire U.S. meat processing industry, with reported sales of $23 billion last year—almost $2 billion of that in profits. The Jefferson plant pumps out 65 million pounds of pepperoni a year, about 40 to 50 percent of Tyson’s pepperoni. Tyson workers in Jefferson manufacture toppings for Pizza Hut and Kraft Foods, supplying approximately 55 percent of Kraft’s pepperoni for DiGiorno, Tombstone, and Jack’s pizzas.
Yet for all its profitability, notes Local 538 president Mike Rice, Tyson’s “corporate philosophy” easily tipped the scales against workers. When contract negotiations began at the Jefferson plant in the spring of 2002, Tyson immediately proposed devastating cuts in virtually every area of the union contract, threatening to worsen conditions at the Jefferson plant to the level of Tyson’s chicken plants in the Deep South.
Tyson negotiators have demanded lower pay, fewer holidays, and less sick leave for new hires; for current employees—a wage freeze with one-time bonuses instead of pay increases—an end to pension contributions in favor of a new 401k personal investment plan (featuring Tyson stock of course), and less vacation time for employees. Local 538 has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National Labor Relations Board, alleging the company has not bargained in “good faith,” a violation of the 1935 Wagner Act.
Company negotiators insist that their offer is fair because it will bring the Jefferson plant in line with their other operations. Besides, they say, most of the changes won’t affect current “team members.”
“We’re team members until it comes to compensation,” Rice notes sardonically. “On the side of their trucks, the company has written, ‘Tyson is what your family deserves.’ But our families don’t deserve this.”
Who Deserves This?
T he workers finally voted 400 to 9 for a strike and when the last contract extension expired at noon on February 28, workers inside the plant blew their whistles as loud as they could and marched out to join the picket line outside. Just about everybody in the 7,300-member community has been affected in one way or another by the crisis of the 470 Tyson workers. Strikers have broad sympathy in Jefferson. Some groceries in the Jefferson area have stopped carrying Tyson products in solidarity and a nearby gas station has been leaving its restrooms unlocked 24 hours a day for the picketers in front of the Tyson plant. “Somebody comes in every day and leaves enough money to pay for coffee for the strikers,” one station employee told the press.
Members of other unions have joined strikers on the picket line. Passersby routinely honk in support of the handful of workers who walk the picket line. Strikers have sent “Truth Squads” across the country, including to the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas on March 25, informing pizza parlor operators, and consumers, of Tyson’s moves against the Jefferson workers.
Truth Squads have found the public to be responsive to their message, at least as far as they have reached them. But nationally, few pizza lovers know about the strike, much less the reasons for it, perhaps in part because the message is harder to convey than most simple boycott sloganeering, such as “Boycott Taco Bell.”
So why not boycott all Tyson products or Tyson’s customers? For one thing, explains Jill Cashen from UFCW headquarters, Tyson is a big company, employing 120,000 people in 300 meatpacking plants in the U.S. and other countries, many of them UFCW members. For another, the “hold- the-pepperoni” strategy focuses the attack on profits normally made from the affected workers and it is likely to prove more effective than a scattershot approach.
Moreover, current U.S. labor law prohibits secondary boycotts, that is, targeting customers of the employer at issue. But the point of the strategy is to decrease the sale of Tyson-made pepperoni anyway, not to cut pizza consumption. The Tyson-free pizza trend could impact the pizza companies’ bottom line and the strikers hope their complaints will trickle up the pepperoni pipeline to Tyson. But the main goal is to hurt Tyson’s pepperoni sales during the strike—and expose Tyson’s “corporate philosophy.”
I n some ways the dispute is a clash of traditions. Chicken processing is virtually non-union and Tyson has been processing poultry for over 100 years, mostly in the South. Red meat processing, on the other hand, is heavily unionized. The Jefferson plant made pepperoni, bologna, and sausage for 125 years before Tyson bought more than 20 former IBP beef processing plants in 2001, including the Jefferson plant. Rice says he has negotiated contracts at Jefferson with five different employers over the years without a single hour of lost work due to any labor dispute. But Tyson’s chicken plants in the South pay less, offer inferior benefits, and operate under harsher conditions than Jefferson workers have faced before.
Chicken processing in general is notorious for hazardous conditions, low wages—sometimes below the legal minimum without extra pay for overtime—and abuse of underage or undocumented workers. In January 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that none of the chicken processing plants it surveyed were in compliance with the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Workers Protection Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Tyson has been investigated for wage and hour violations as well as conspiring to import undocumented workers and furnish them with phony “green cards.” Tyson employees have historically had high turnover rates, an average of 73 percent over 84 plants in 21 states in 1998. Most Tyson employees earn $7 to $8 an hour, or $14,000 to $16,000 a year.
Not that Tyson’s chicken plants don’t fight back. In 1999, over 250 poultry processing workers in Corydon, Indiana struck the Tyson plant there after Tyson bought the plant from the Hudson Corporation and demanded major concessions including elimination of paid break time, reduced overtime pay, and bereavement leave. Tyson also balked at one seemingly civic- minded union demand: the workers wanted the right to discard contaminated or diseased meat. Following on the heels of massive national recalls of meat due to salmonella and listeria outbreaks, the union demand resonated with the public —but not with Tyson management.
Strikes at Tyson, however, have been few. Many Southern states have “right-to-work” laws that weaken unions and high poverty rates that add to the pressures felt by Tyson workers to accept less. Tyson has a reputation for ruthlessness and its size certainly helps.
True, Tyson has been somewhat less profitable since taking over IBP in a contentious legal battle. IBP had apparently failed to properly report earnings and Tyson tried to back out of the deal, but the courts ruled the “merger” must go ahead. Rice calls this decision, “the saddest day of my life.” In the first quarter of 2003 Tyson reported only $39 million in profits and $72 million in profits in the second quarter, which includes a $65 million partial settlement in its price- fixing suit against makers of vitamins used in animal feeds. Without the settlement, both quarters represent declines in profits from the same period the previous year.
But, as U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison) told the strikers, “The fact is, your plant made money.” Baldwin’s letter acknowledged the “tough economic times,” but noted, “that does not mean working men and women should be left with dealing with the burden of the slow economy alone.” Thin End of the Wedge
T yson employees in other plants fear that they may be next. The contract at the Jefferson plant is the first there since Tyson bought out IBP and it may well set the pattern for bargaining at the rest. If the company succeeds in breaking the strike at Jefferson, the workers say, there would likely be a ripple effect throughout the country affecting many thousands of workers and their communities. On the other hand, if the workers can beat back the company’s attempts at eroding their standard of living, they could put the union in a stronger bargaining position for the next contract negotiations.
The first two months in what promises to be a long battle, owing to the stakes, have already been tough. Just two days before the walkout, Gary Gilbertson, the president of Local 538, died suddenly of a heart attack after eight months of negotiating with Tyson Foods. Tyson has hired strikebreakers to keep the Jefferson plant going and management has threatened to permanently replace (i.e., “fire”) the strikers. Strike pay is only $100 a week and many of the workers’ spouses have been forced to take second jobs to pay the bills. But the strikers and their supporters remain defiant.
No union members have yet crossed the picket line. In May, the UFCW mailed out half a million bulletins asking pizza-loving workers around the country to say, “Make mine Tyson-free.” Already their fight may be having an effect, says Rice. Sources inside the plant have told the union that production is down to almost 15 percent of normal. There has been a high turnover among the strikebreakers, and strikers recently held protests outside the temp agency supplying the scabs. The workers seem well aware that their fight is both a tough one and one that has an importance beyond themselves. Rice remains hopeful that the strike and boycott will find support among pizza lovers nationwide, but he still calls it a David-and-Goliath battle.
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