Tyson Workers Holding the Line… and the Pepperoni


This article is from the September/October 2003 issue of Dollars and Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org

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This article is from the September/October 2003 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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Less than 500 pepperoni workers on strike against Tyson Foods in the tiny Wisconsin town of Jefferson are staring down a massive corporate assault on the living standards of thousands of workers nationwide. They know it, too. Supporters joining the picket line from other plants have made it clear: workers can fight the battle now in Jefferson, or "down the road" at their own plants. They seem to be drawing the line at Jefferson.

"It's David against Goliath," says local union president Mike Rice. "But the support has been overwhelming." Canned goods for the strikers, sometimes two semi trucks a week, have poured in. A local pharmacist gives striking parents free milk. Grocery stores in the area have pulled Tyson chicken products from their coolers. Dozens of homes in the town of 7,500 now sport signs reading, "We need more than chicken feed," or "No greed." And around the country workers and other pizza lovers are saying, "Hold the pepperoni!"

More Than Chicken Feed

Tyson Foods is the largest chicken processing company in the world, at least three times the size of its closest competitor, and in 2001 the company began muscling in on beef and pork. With its purchase of IBP Fresh Meats, formerly Iowa Beef Processing, Tyson now controls approximately one-fourth of the U.S. meat-processing industry, taking in almost $2 billion in profit last year. The company is no friend of labor, and its encroachment on unionized territory poses a growing threat to wages and working conditions in the meat-processing sector overall.

The Jefferson plant was among those IBP plants bought up by Tyson on what Rice calls "the saddest day of my life." The plant makes 65 million pounds of pepperoni a year, including about 55% of all the pepperoni used on Kraft's DiGiorno, Jack's, and Tombstone pizzas, as well as much of the pepperoni used by Pizza Hut. Its 470 workers—members of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW)—are highly productive, and through several changes of ownership they have always enjoyed relatively good pay and working conditions. There has never been a strike in the plant's 128-year history… until now.

"On the side of the trucks it says, 'Tyson is what your family deserves,'" says Rice, "but our families don't deserve this."

What Your Family Deserves

Workers at the Jefferson plant walked out on February 28 after eight frustrating months of hard bargaining. They'd resisted Tyson demands for deep concessions under one contract extension after another. The company had announced in January that it was no longer willing to extend the old contract, which was scheduled to expire at midnight on February 25. But Tyson's final offer would still freeze, cut, or eliminate almost every worker benefit.

The average "team member," as Tyson employees are called, faced a pay cut of 73 cents an hour, increased health-care premium costs of up to $40 a week as well as higher deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses, a 50% reduction in sick leave, two weeks less vacation per year, elimination of a profit-sharing plan, and replacement of the pension in favor of a 401(k) plan heavily invested in—you guessed it—Tyson stock. "We're team members until it comes to compensation," notes Rice.

More importantly, says 25-year employee John Hernandez, "Our families can't live on that." Tyson's proposals to cut wages and benefits, Hernandez says, would devastate his family. So this small union in the middle of farm country voted 400-9 to strike. They also called for a national boycott of Tyson-made pizza toppings, from Kraft to Pizza Hut, and sent out "Truth Squads," small teams of strikers who tell the workers' side of the conflict, a tactic used in the Allied Industrial Workers' strike/lockout at the A. E. Staley Company in Decatur, Ill., between 1993 and 1995.

A July 11 article in the New York Times titled "Unions Finding That Employers Want More Concessions" used the Tyson strike as its prime example. Corporations, the article explained, are "grappl[ing] with a weak economy, fierce overseas competition and soaring health costs" and so are "demanding wage freezes, lower starting pay, stingier pensions and higher health insurance premiums and co-payments."

But does this description really fit the strike at Jefferson? The demands certainly correspond. Yet later in the same article a top management official suggests that Tyson's objectives have less to do with the larger economic forces cited in the Times, and more to do with the chicken giant's own designs for downgrading working conditions in the beef and pork industry. "We're not pleading poverty," says 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." In fact, a closer look reveals a highly profitable corporation that has built an empire in a notoriously dangerous, low-paying industry, and now wants to extend its influence into traditionally unionized sectors.

Who's Out of Line?

The meat-products industry as a whole (including beef, pork, and poultry) has long been a hazardous place to work and an unappetizing link in the food chain. But in the years since Upton Sinclair's famous investigation, fictionalized in The Jungle, and the advent of federal regulation, most consumers have assumed the problems were solved. Never mind those occasional outbreaks of salmonella, listeria, or E. coli. Unions made significant gains among beef and pork processing workers throughout the twentieth century, achieving a union density that exceeded 90% in multi-plant operations outside the South by the 1970s. These workers won dramatic wage increases—their average pay is about 17% higher than the average manufacturing wage.

In poultry slaughter and processing, on the other hand, concentrated in the "right-to-work" South, African-American and poor white workers continued to fight desperate battles for unionization—and mostly lost. Wages and working conditions in poultry processing have therefore remained significantly worse than in beef and pork. A recent survey of chicken plants by the U.S. Department of Labor (2000) found extensive violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Most violations involved unpaid overtime wages and illegal paycheck deductions.

Tyson Foods may be the worst offender in a highly offensive industry. The Arkansas-based corporate giant is still facing multiple charges for these violations. And it has been charged with taking advantage of thousands of undocumented immigrants which the company allegedly brought into the country to work in its chicken plants, even reportedly assisting some in obtaining fake work permits.

In 1999, Tyson employees in Corydon, Ind., went on strike because, in addition to demanding wage and benefit concessions, Tyson refused a rather unusual union demand: the right to discard diseased chickens discovered on the assembly line. Workers had been disciplined in the past for doing just that.

The same year, seven Tyson workers were killed at work, including two chicken catchers who died of electrocution. Two other workers suffocated after falling into an open pit of decomposing chicken parts. No employees of any other poultry processing company died at work in 1999. Safety violations at Tyson have risen drastically in recent years: from 17 throughout all poultry operations in 1997 to 73 in a single plant in 2000. Tyson has also made the Corporate Crime Reporter's list of the nation's ten worst corporations (1999) and the Sierra Club's "Ten Least Wanted" list (2002).

Now Tyson says it needs to bring its newly acquired beef and pork plants—like the one in Jefferson—into line with these frightening poultry operations, one contract at a time. Beef and pork processing workers around the country, already badly bruised by mechanization and anti-union campaigns in the 1980s, see this as an aggressive encroachment on the gains they have made in the past century.

However Long It Takes

Fortunately, the UFCW, which represents the workers at Jefferson, has extensive—often bitter—experience with Tyson Foods. Tens of thousands of Tyson employees belong to UFCW, and enjoy better wages and working conditions for it. This makes for broad solidarity beyond the little Wisconsin community. In May UFCW mailed out half a million bulletins asking its members around the country to boycott Tyson-made pizza toppings.

At the local level, city and county governments including the Madison School Board have stopped using Tyson products in their food services. One state senator has called for the state government to boycott Tyson until the strike is settled, and U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) has spoken out strongly in support of the strikers.

Tyson has apparently lost some ground as a result. Production is reported to be severely down. Turnover is high among replacement workers. And the union recently raised questions—and eyebrows—about the role of the state Department of Corrections in placing strikebreakers in the Jefferson plant, after twenty scabs were discovered to be prisoners out on parole or in work-release programs.

The picketers outside the Jefferson plant have endured every variety of weather since February—24 hours a day, seven days a week. Strike pay is low, and many strikers and spouses have been forced to work two jobs. Yet passing motorists still honk in support, or stop to donate refreshments. And the strikers, ever cognizant of the wider ramifications of their day-to-day struggle, dig in deeper. Not one union member has so far crossed the picket line. "The company forced this strike on us," says Rice. "We're on the picket line today and we'll be there however long it takes to reach a fair settlement."

To send a letter in support of the strikers, see: www.unionvoice.org/campaign/tysonpizzahut.

To donate, make checks payable to "UFCW Local 538 Strike Fund" and mail to 2228 Myrtle St., Madison, WI 53704.

Ricky Baldwin is a father of twins, labor activist and writer, whose articles have appeared in Extra!, Z Magazine, Labor Notes and elsewhere. He recently moved to Urbana, Ill.