The Tyson Fresh Meats beef slaughter and processing facility in Pasco, Washington is an industrial tower of Babel. Fifteen hundred workers from Mexico, Bosnia, Vietnam, and other far-flung countries, labor elbow-to-elbow along the plant’s disassembly lines, cutting off heads, legs, and hooves, and skinning the enormous cattle carcasses. The bodies are then carried along by a chain to more workers, who use metal hooks and knives to slice the animals into ever smaller pieces, ultimately destined for a supermarket near you.
In 2003, the left arm of 24-year-old Luis Madrigal was a casualty of the line. "[He] cut off his arm with a hock-cutter," says Pasco Tyson meat processor and union leader Maria Martinez, referring to a machine with twin curved steel blades designed to chop through the joint of a cow’s knee. "The company had taken off the arm guards from the hock-cutter and the machine wasn’t working right because of production, adds Martinez. "All they care about is production, not the safety of the workers."
Meatpacking, by its very nature, is extremely dangerous. "Hogs, steer and cows are very heavy animals and [cutting is] done in large part by hand, which puts strains on workers’ arms, shoulders and backs," says Cornell University labor expert Lance Compa. "You put just these sheer physical demands on top of the conditions: the blood, the grease, the heat, and the stench, and then the danger that results from the workers coming in contact with the animal’s half-digested food."
And yet in one of the most hazardous industries in the United States, the record of Tyson Fresh Meat’s Pasco plant stands out. According to the US Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the rate of injury and illness at the facility is more than two and a half times the national average for meatpacking plants and more than twice that of meatpacking facilities with a thousand or more workers.
The Pasco plant also stands out in a second way: the killing and cutting floors of the plant, as well as its disassembly and cafeteria lines, have been the battleground of a tumultuous effort to jettison the union, Teamsters Local 556, that has represented meatpacking workers there for more than 25 years. In February, workers at the plant voted to decertify the union under a cloud of allegations of dirty tricks, labor law violations, and union busting.
Many argue that these two elements — the lack of safety and the robust efforts to dissolve the union — are part and parcel of the same problem. In the months to come, other unions representing meatpacking workers will be looking to the struggle at Tyson’s Pasco plant as a bellwether for labor rights in one of America’s most treacherous occupations.
When Teamsters Local 556 Secretary-Treasurer Maria Martinez started work at the Pasco plant, it was under the ownership of Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) and had been a union shop for more than 20 years. Tyson Foods, Inc. bought IBP in 2001, making the company the largest beef producer in the world. Martinez says that when Tyson came in, the company cut the workforce, leading to higher rates of injury. "There’s very much a difference between IBP and Tyson. You can see with Tyson, trying to get rid of the union was the most important thing for them."
Tyson Foods, Inc., the parent company of Tyson Fresh Meats, is a giant amongst giants. Tyson dominates the meatpacking industry as the world’s largest processor and marketer of chicken, beef, and pork. The Springdale, Arkansas-based company is twice as large as its next competitor, with 114,000 workers and sales last year of $26.4 billion. Founded in 1935, Tyson Foods produces one out of every four pounds of beef, chicken, and pork in the U.S, and sells meat under the brands Thomas E. Wilson, Doskocil, Jac Pac, Reuben, ITC, Wright Brand, Russer, Jordan’s, Continental Deli, and Iowa Ham. The family-owned company is run by Chairman and CEO John Tyson, a devout Christian, whose grandfather started the company. Under the stewardship of the younger generation, Tyson Foods "Core Values" include striving to be "faith-friendly company" and "to honor God." In its drive towards a union-free shop, the company implies that these imposed religious beliefs will keep their workers safe.
In a recent Tyson Press Release, for example, Pasco manager Ray McGaugh used somewhat biblical language to make the link, saying, "Tyson’s core values and code of conduct will continue to guide the company and its relationship with Team Members as we operate without a union."
Union decertification redux
Many employees at the Pasco plant say that Tyson has sped up the pace that meat cutters must work, while reducing the number of people on the line. Ninety percent of workers interviewed for a University of Massachusetts and Whitman College report on worker health and safety at the Pasco plant said they believed that the speed of the chain that moves meat along the disassembly line is too rapid, while over 70 percent stated that Tyson assigned too few workers to each task.
"What I’ve seen, because I’ve always worked in the processing department," says Martinez, "is people get injured because they don’t have the time to keep their knife sharp or do their piece of meat because the meat comes one after another after another. It always comes back to the speed of the chain."
The union’s presence at the plant was challenged last year, after a disgruntled worker, Carlos Perez, who had lost to Martinez in an election for leadership of the Teamsters local union, gathered signatures to force an election to decertify the union. (Martinez is a member of the reform group Teamsters for a Democratic Union, while Perez was backed by the Teamsters establishment.) Perez was subsequently promoted to supervisor by Tyson.
When workers at the plant voted last April on whether to continue having union representation at the Pasco facility, the pro-union side won out. Tyson management then claimed that union stewards improperly spoke to workers as they were waiting to vote. In December the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) insisted that a new vote be taken, despite the NLRB Hearing Officer’s findings that "certain electioneering did occur but…was not sufficient under third-party standards to overturn the election."
This February the election was held again. This time the workers at the plant voted 690 to 586 to decertify the union. The plant manager McGaugh claimed this as a "vote of confidence in the company and our plant’s management staff."
The union sees things differently and has filed an objection with the NLRB, claiming that Tyson "sabotaged the rights of employees and interfered with the election" in 22 violations of labor law. The objections include intimidating and coercing employees, offering or providing benefits to employees to induce them to vote against the union, passing out fraudulent campaign literature falsely attributed to the union, and providing workers with false information about voting times and locations.
"Tyson closed the plant for 6 or 7 weeks and paid people for 32 hours [a week]", says attorney David Rosenfeld, who is representing Local 556. "We’ve no objections to the workers being paid. But it’s not typical. It’s like a bribe so the workers would forget about everything else the company’s done. And this was just before the elections." Tyson temporarily suspended production from January to February in several of its plants, owing to low demand for beef, the company claimed. The union also alleges that Tyson told workers that the length of the layoff was dependent on how they voted in the decertification election.
Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson disputes such charges, stating that the company acted within its rights. "While the decertification election was the result of a petition initiated by hourly workers, the law allows the company to take a position and communicate with our Team Members about the significance of their vote. We wanted to ensure they made an informed choice."
According to union lawyer Rosenfeld, among the most egregious acts the company committed was enlisting the help of a local Pasco Spanish-language publication, called La Voz, to publish false statements that the Pasco plant would close and relocate if workers voted for the union. "The company supports [La Voz] with a lot of advertising," says Rosenfeld. After the paper printed a piece about continued unionization leading to closure of the facility, "the company passed the article in and around the plant."
Leaders of Teamsters Local 556 have filed a libel lawsuit against La Voz, alleging, among other charges, that the paper claimed that union leaders closed the Japanese market to Tyson products following a labor solidarity-building trip to Japan. In actuality, Japan, along with more than 20 other countries, closed its market to US beef after a case of BSE, or mad cow disease, was discovered in Washington state in 2003.
"We’re disappointed but not surprised by the union’s false charges," says Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson in a recent statement of the union’s objections to the NLRB. "As an employer, all of our actions leading up to such a vote are regulated by federal law. We did not do or say anything inappropriate or unlawful." Mickelson believes the labor board will dismiss the Teamster’s appeal, adding that Tyson "look[s] forward to working with our Team Members in a union-free environment."
Fortune shining down
Having pioneered products like McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, Tyson Foods is currently riding the Atkins wave of high-protein, low carbohydrate diets in the US. (See Sidebar). In its $75 million Powered by TysonâÂ„¢ television, radio, web, and print advertising campaign, Tyson has rebranded itself "the world’s leading protein provider."
Fortune Magazine recently named Tyson America’s "Most Admired" food company, based on the ratings of 10,000 executives, directors and securities analysts, for the second time in three years. Fortune’s high estimation of the company’s leadership seems to be shared by Tyson’s board, which last year gave Chairman and CEO John Tyson a $5.4 million dollar bonus – one of the largest in a year of bloated payouts to executives.
In 2004, the company was investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for awarding, without proper disclosure, Tyson director and former CEO — John Tyson’s father — Don Tyson $1.7 million in bonuses from 1997 to 2003. Tyson Foods has agreed to pay $1.5 million in a settlement with the SEC. Yet in the middle of negotiations with the SEC, company directors granted Don Tyson a $1.2 million a year contract for consulting, along with a yearly pension of $750,000 and other perks. Last month, union-owned Amalgamated Bank, which owns nearly 89,000 shares in Tyson, filed a lawsuit against the company alleging that Tyson Foods has guaranteed Tyson family members such as Don Tyson substantial consulting fees once they retire from the firm — and even after death.
In order to cover these fees, Tyson has adopted policies that squeeze workers and unions. A recent report by Human Rights Watch authored by Lance Compa indicates that the working and organizing conditions at Tyson’s Pasco plant are not atypical of the corporation’s track record as a whole. The study argues that Tyson, along with meatpacking and processing giants Smithfield and Nebraska Beef, systematically violate the labor rights of its workers: insufficiently protecting workers from injury, taking advantage of undocumented laborers, not paying workers’ compensation, illegally impeding their right to organize a trade union, or ousting unions that exist.
"Tyson always gets rid of workers who protest or who speak up for others," says a poultry worker quoted in the report who works at the Tyson plant in Rogers, Arkansas. "When they jumped from thirty-two chickens a minute to forty-two, a lot of people protested. The company came right out and asked who the leaders were. Then they fired them. They told us â€Â˜If you don’t like it, there’s the door. There’s another eight hundred applicants waiting to take your job.’"
Tyson, who refused direct comment to CorpWatch, did release a statement following the report’s release. "We’re disappointed with the report’s misleading conclusions, but not surprised given the author’s ties to organized labor," the company said, pointing to the Tyson’s Team Member Bill of Rights, which was issued one day before the HRW report was published.
The Bill of Right affirms workers’ "right to choose whether they want to join together for collective bargaining purposes." It also states that workers have the right to "tell Tyson first…if any [employee] feels that they are being treated unfairly with respect to any employment matter," presumably in place of turning to a union.
The National Labor Relations Board found Tyson guilty of illegally expelling a union from its poultry plant in 1993 in Dardanelle, Arkansas and from its Holly Farms subsidiary in 1995. In 2003, Tyson hired permanent strike breakers during a labor dispute at its meat processing plant in Jefferson, Wisconsin, drawing the ire of the community there.
In 2001, following a three-year undercover investigation, federal prosecutors accused Tyson of conspiring to smuggle undocumented immigrants from Mexico and Central America to work in its poultry plants in Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Indiana, Missouri and Virginia, over a period of 7 years, in order to raise profits. Despite the testimony of managers that orders came from on high, a Tennessee jury controversially concluded in 2003 that the operation was run locally without the approval of the company executives.
In its efforts to up safety measures within their factories, Tyson gives a number of its workers Excellence in Safety awards and has adopted something called the Chairman’s Safety Circle. This year, the company also offered their first Chairman’s Award for Best Overall Safety. Tyson prides itself on taking safety precautions seriously, but its record raises doubts. On 2003, Jason Kelly, a worker at Tyson Foods River Valley Animal Feed Ingredients rendering plant in Texarkana, Arkansas, died from inhalation of hydrogen sulfide when he was repairing a machine that converts chicken feathers into pet food. Hydrogen sulfide is a poisonous gas created by decaying organic matter. Tyson was issued citations for five willful violations, 12 serious violations, and two other violations of OSHA rules, but OSHA proceedings were suspended pending a federal grand jury investigation of Kelly’s death.
OSHA statistics obtained through the Freedom of Information Act reveal that last year 31 Tyson facilities around the country were classified as workplaces with the highest injury and illness rates in the US. These included Tyson Foods facilities in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Back to the Jungle?
At Tyson Fresh Meats in Pasco, the workers await the ruling of the National Labor Relations Board. If the NLRB concludes that Teamsters Local 556’s objections in the Pasco decertification election are valid, the plant’s workers will be given a third chance to vote on whether or not to keep their union. If the NLRB upholds the current election results, the Tyson plant will go the way of the rest of the meatpacking industry over the last four decades, which was once a union-dominated enterprise with some of the highest wages for manufacturing work.
David Rosenfeld, lawyer for Local 556, believes that the union has a strong case for overturning the decertification election, but adds that it will be an uphill battle with the NLRB. "I have no optimism that the [NLRB] will be fair. But the union’s objections are good."
United Food and Commercial Workers union’s Jill Cashen shares Rosenfeld’s skepticism. "Labor law in this country is woefully inadequate to properly protect workers’ rights to organize and to have an organized voice on the job," she says.
Sasha Lilley is a staff writer for CorpWatch and producer of Against the Grain on Pacifica Radio’s KPFA.