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Organizing on the Killing Floor

05 Feb

By: Ricardo Torres

Confessions of a union organizer

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In my past, I worked as a high-ranking union official and National Organizing Director within the union machine. Back then; we would set our sights on the easiest targets to quickly raise our membership levels. There were many circumstances that factored into our decision ofwhether or not to accept an organizing request from the employees. It could have been an issue involving layoffs in a facility, changes in benefits, regional politics, and safety issues.Sometimes these issues were a concern throughout an entire industry. Then the whole industry became the “low hanging fruit”.

Ricardo Torres – President & CEO

As counterintuitive as it sounds, when unemployment rates were at there highest, the union’s win rate was higher because the lack of alternative jobs meant there was also a lack of new pastures to “escape” to. We knew that workers would have no alternative but to look for third party representation when the work environment was unacceptable and they had nowhere else to go. They were seeking a “voice” and we wereseeking workers with a rock solid dedication to our cause that were ready to “win by any means necessary”.

When the above factors all fall into place industry wide, it made fora perfect storm for organizing activity. One group that fell in this category, and remains in this category today, was Slaughtering, Processing, Packaging and Distribution industries. In the late 1990’s, Iwas in charge of a national Slaughtering and Processing organizing campaign. At any given time during this period, I had an army of organizers covering several states.

First of all, the slaughtering and processing industry is very powerful but also extremely vulnerable to public pressure. In addition, as an industry it is also prone to accusations of health violations which was a weakness that we exploited to attack their corporate image, heighten public outrage and put outside pressure on them to respect the workers right to organize. It was our goal to organize without resistance because of the pressure we implemented and to give the employees the impression of moral superiority.

As an organizing official, I had access to surveys, which show that the industry is plagued with a negative public perception. In fact, Human Rights Watch declared the industry to be the most dangerous factory job in America and went on to say that working conditions in these industries violated many basic human and worker rights. Of course,these were all tools that we used to attack the companies. We successfully spun this to our favor when organizing the workers with little care that the industry had given so many people the ability to support their families and that no one enters these jobs with closed eyes and no idea of what they were getting into prior to gaining employment in these facilities.

Four companies control 83% of all beef processing facilities in the United States and 58% of boiler chicken production/processing but they are fiercely competitive. In the 1980’s, many meatpacking companies moved from urban, union dominated, areas to rural locations where union representation had dropped.

At one point, the percentage of unionized workers in the slaughteringand processing industry was around 80% compared to about 40% today according to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS)

Whenever we organized an industry or company, we never went in blind.We had detailed research on hand that provided us with the weaknesses and areas of vulnerability of the industry, which was detailed to the individual, plant level. This was our key to building a groundswell of support. When I was coordinating organizing drives in these industries, my organizing department had to have a finely tuned attack plan. Organizing on this level is much more calculated and planned than most people understand. In fact, there are commissions who are solely dedicated to conducting the research in specific industries. Whether it be meat processing, glass, rubber, retail or healthcare, we would use the data gleaned from these commissions and compare it side-by-side withunion and non-union facilities across the country to the smallest detail.

The Midwestern meatpacking plants were no different. During this period of my former career, we received many calls from a self-imposed group of employees who were angry at their supervisors and their company. When my team and I first met with them, we worked with them for2 weeks before we decided they were a “good risk”. First, we had to ensure the core group of internal organizers were good employees with a history with the company and were considered to be the “informal leaders” within their departments. It is common with this industry to have 100% turnover, or more, and it was rare to find workers who were employed for more than one year at a plant. We spent the first few months getting to know the workers and their community. Since most of the workers were Hispanic, we did our research to identify what countries they came form so that we could mirror our organizing team with them. The slaughtering and processing industry relocation to rural areas in the 1980’s actually turned out to help us with our organizing efforts because it helped make new little minority communities where they did not exist in the past. The slaughtering and processing industryis comprised of 70% minorities with 38% being woman. At this particularplant, the workers were over 80% Hispanic and many did not understand English. Most of these workers came from Mexico and Guatemala. Because of the high turnover rate, the company provided incentives to the employees to recruit family members. When they did recruit from outside their immediate area they took the easiest path and hired workers in groups who tended to be from the same region and/or town so when they started working in the plant, they continued to group together and rarely ventured outside of their sub groups. About 30-35% of this workforce was made up of illegal immigrants, which was not far out of line with the current national average of 25% (according to Immigration and Naturalization Services).

The companies drive to continue feeding the factory with new workers actually turned out to set us up with our own perfect storm. As we were simultaneously putting our action plan into motion we were also buildinga strong support group of community and national Hispanic organizationsand churches. The ever-changing workforce was working in our favor because many of these workers were looking for more stability and we made them believe that we could force the company to give more rights tothe workers. Through our research, we learned that 90% of the Hispanic employees belonged to 27 families and so the growing internal organizingcommittee set out to have several park barbeques to build support. Within 3 months, we had about 50% of the authorization cards signed without the company knowing that any union activity was going on, but wewere determined to wait for 70% of the cards being signed before filingfor a petition to conduct and election.

Once we had the majority support from the workers that we needed to win, we had to lock it in. We already had anger levels where we wanted them with a large segment of the workforce by “educating” them on how wages had actually dropped over the previous 15 years but we still had to make the issues more personal. We recruited workers from some of the areas where a majority of the workers came from and arranged to have them hired in the plant. They were all woman and/or older workers. We used them because we knew we could play the “sympathy” card with them. Along side these workers; we also hired professional union agitators.

Still waiting to get more support in the form of signed authorizationcards, we turned up the heat. The nature of this industry is that everything moves fast and maintaining production speed is paramount. Theplant we were organizing was slaughtering around 300 cattle per hour. Because of the speed of the production line, it was very hard for anyoneto use the bathroom. When they did get bathroom breaks and could not make it back in the 10 minutes they were allotted, they were written up.Many of our female salts began staging “bathroom accidents” and startedarguments with line supervisors in front of other workers. They would begin crying to the male coworkers to purposely trigger their protectiveinstincts. This was all just setting the stage to increase anger levelsto a boiling point within the plant.

The women inside the factory under the leadership of our salts formeda woman’s group whose purpose was to fight for more human rights for female employees. The group also enlisted many of the male workers wivesto participate. My team and I directed them to file formal complaints with the company with no positive results (which we expected). Then we set the stage for them to take their story to the press and to complain to their churches. This was the “tipping point” for the Hispanic community, which had them collectively feeling angry and outraged about the company’s treatment of the workers.

My organizers spent every weekend at the soccer fields building a strong “friendship” and more support through the organizing committee, which was now almost 40% of the workforce.

Another avenue that we took to build upon the anger levels was arranging for the older workers to get hurt on the “killing floor” during production. We used these “accidents” to start talking about safety at the plant, which is easy to do in the slaughterhouse/processing industry where the injury rate is nearly 27 times higher than the national average.

We also brought in immigration rights activists to talk to the workers who were trying to stay in the country. We promised to bring in attorneys who could help with immigration legal paperwork. The workers were under the understanding that we could help them get their green cards (of course this was not true). We played the race card, highlighting and misrepresenting many issues to be targeted only againstthe Hispanic workers like how the write up documents were only done in English and the unfair advancement of some of the supervisors. We were so engrained in the Hispanic “system” that we had Hispanic front line supervisors directly feeding us inside information.

The heat was cranked up on the shop floor. Anger levels were startingto peak. Fist fights and arguments were a common problem. So, we pushedit further. Our internal salts would lead mini “revolts” on a daily basis to solidify our support amongst the employees. We got a special surge when one of the workers who was pro-company got injured by inhaling too much chlorine while cleaning some blood tanks. His lungs were burned and his body was covered in blisters. We supported him and his family while he was off work. This move brought us good will with other workers who were “sitting on the fence”. This worker became one ofour best spokespersons for the union. There were other accidents happening in the plant. One worker broke his leg stepping into a hole inthe slaughterhouse’s concrete floor, another was severely burned after fuel from his saw ignited, several were injured from flying blades, there were also stun gun accidents. One worker was severely injured by ahide-fleshing machine. The rate of repetitive motion injuries in this industry is about 3 times higher than the national average. While the plant was working very hard to solve these problems, and began the promotion of a focused safety campaign with the employees to lower on the job injuries we continued to attack them. We told the workers they were doing too little, too late and that the only reason they were doinganything was because of union pressure to fix working conditions. We couldn’t allow the fact that management was actually concerned lessen the levels of anger felt by the workers.

We hired 25 employee family members on a part-time basis to help meetwith workers and to build more support. Along with this, we utilized a contract clause for union leave rights to rotate in and out nearly 100 slaughterhouse workers from unionized plants to show the workers empathyand to keep their attention on the ultimate goal of union victory throughout the remainder of the campaign.

At this time, we wanted to split up the company’s resources and started a campaign to damage its reputation by reporting unsafe standards used to process the beef. Workers were taking photos and film of practices, which, to the layperson, would disgust them. We had them call in animal rights groups like Animal Agriculture Alliance and the Human Farming Association to further tarnish the reputation of the company. The saying in meat packing plants is, “the chain will not stop”. To keep the workers emotionally focused on a victory we handed out shirts a few days before the vote and said “The Chains Must Stop” inbig letters.

Ultimately, the union won the election. The untold story is that, in truth, the industry is working very hard to improve their safety record and has done a good job so far. Some things cannot be done by machine and this work is very labor intensive. In all reality, this company was attempting to do right by their employees. The union just got in their way.

The truth is that we had months to prepare and methodically attack this company in order to win this election. We tore apart the company and their management team as a means to reach our goal. We knew that if we did a good job of infiltrating the company and staying behind the scenes unnoticed and we were successful at keeping the company jumping through hoops and defending themselves that they would make fatal mistakes after the petition was filed. We knew that by doing this. we had a very good chance of winning. We knew this because the company had no way to defend themselves against an enemy that they didn’t know was attacking them. With the union, you have to expect these attacks. This is what they do! If the National Labor Relations Board shortens the election cycle and the unions go after your organization, then your goalto maintain a union free status will be many times harder because when you get an election petition you are already behind the eight ball.

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