Teamster Meat Packers Take on IBP with Little Support from their Union
"'Enough is enough' is something you can understand in any language," said Teamsters chief steward Maria Martinez to a reporter outside the IBP beef processing plant where she works.
In early June, the 1,300 workers at the plant, outside the town of Pasco in eastern Washington, said "enough!" with their own voices. They spoke mostly in Mexican or Central American Spanish, but also in Lao, Vietnamese, and the Serbo-Croatian language of Bosnian immigrants.
With negotiations on a new contract going slowly and the production line speeding up, dozens of workers walked out in a wildcat strike in support of a few who were fired for protesting conditions. Soon most of their shift, and then the afternoon shift, was on the street with them, many workers still wearing bloody smocks.
A month later, the Teamsters international intervened. International Vice President Jon Rabine of Seattle met privately with the company and brought back a settlement. At a meeting in which in which serious debate was squelched, the contract was ratified by 276-258.
Days later, Teamsters President James Hoffa Junior placed the local in trusteeship. Hoffa said the trusteeship was requested by the local executive board after a "divisive" strike.
"How convenient," said Martinez, "for officials who never even showed up at the picket line to now ask to put off the scheduled election."
Those officials had reason to fear the local union election, which was scheduled for October. IBP workers make up about two-thirds of Local 556, and now many of them felt sold out by their officials. Martinez and other elected shop leaders have been pressing for a more militant union, and were preparing to run for local office.
'WE'VE BEEN ROBBED'
Strikers say the contract the officials negotiated is worse than what the company had offered two weeks into the strike because it eliminates the workers' pension plan in favor of individual 401(k) accounts.
By canceling the pension plan, the contract negates bargained wage increases for long-time workers, many of whom were among strike leaders. In an industry always hungry for new hires, the settlement does improve starting pay.
"The workers' actions won us a wage increase," said Martinez. "Our union officials' actions cost us our pension. We've been robbed." This view may have been shared by a majority of the strikers, but by early July they felt their union's lack of support had cut off alternatives.
During the strike, the international union and Local 556 sometimes gave nominal support. For instance, the union sanctioned the strike five days after it began and after workers voted three to one in favor. But at other times, officials aimed accusations at strike leaders.
Local 556 President John Carter sat the strike out. Instead, he invited Al Hobart, top officer of neighboring Local 760, to lead bargaining. International Vice President Rabine appeared on the scene in the strike's final week.
The militancy in the plant seemed to take these officials by surprise, but it wasn't new. Last year, rank and filers elected Maria Martinez to the chief steward position after she and others organized a movement for the right to elect stewards. Members had gotten involved with Teamsters for a Democratic Union and developed their own leadership and communications network. And they'd been educating and organizing for a new contract.
Management had the resources to wait out the strike and to bring in scabs. IBP (formerly Iowa Beef Processing) is the world's largest producer of processed pork and beef. IBP has 48 plants in the U.S. and Canada, only 16 of them union. (Most of the unionized plants are represented by the UFCW). The company is known for bringing the assembly line to meat processing and was the leader in the early 1980s of the industry's successful attack on wages.
On the other hand, workers had some weapons beyond stopping production in Pasco. They had stories about conditions in the plant that could certainly kill the public's appetite for the product. They said "the chain," from which animal carcasses hang, moves too fast to allow processors to keep their hands and the meat clean of pus and feces. Nor were they allowed to remove meat that smelled rancid.
A boycott of IBP would have been difficult because the end product doesn't bear IBP's label. Still, say strikers, publicity about conditions in the plant--for instance leaflets for customers at the major grocers which sell IBP products--might inspire the public and IBP's big corporate buyers to press for change.
Hobart, the negotiator imported from Local 760, announced an IBP boycott on the first day of the strike. A month later the union had done nothing toward a boycott. International Vice President Rabine and the international's head of corporate campaigns, Claude Brown, told strikers a public campaign couldn't work--in part because officials were not given enough time to make plans.
Stewards and rank and file leaders plan to continue pressing the U.S. Department of Agriculture to act on food safety concerns arising from conditions in the plant. Strikers' letters and demonstrations at USDA offices had already brought investigators to the picket line for interviews. Press reports that the Pasco IBP plant is among the bottom five percent on critical safety violations will bolster their case.
The high speed of the chain also causes many serious injuries to workers, of course. The new contract does not address these problems except to add union members to the safety committee.
Strikers saw safety issues as a compelling symbol of their struggle for justice. They called on Teamster leaders for help in publicizing the issue. They asked for coordinated leafletting, a town hall meeting with state politicians, solidarity visits by public figures like Hoffa and other labor, civil rights, and religious leaders.
A boycott and public campaign were not strikers' main strategy for outreach, though. They hoped to send representatives to the Teamster IBP plant in Amarillo, Texas. The Amarillo plant is IBP's only other beef processing plant in the West. Pasco strikers wanted to encourage Amarillo workers to file USDA complaints (surely, they thought, conditions there had only worsened with the extra work picked up from Pasco), and to talk with the local about strategy. They also wanted to meet with the UFCW local at IBP's Dakota City, Nebraska plant, where the contract expires in August.
Strike leaders knew that union politics and protocol meant they'd need official Teamster backing to get institutional support from locals in Amarillo or Dakota City. That was not to be. (The only official support from Teamsters locals came from reform Locals 174 in Seattle and 206 in Portland, which helped organize demonstrations at USDA offices and sent a truckload of groceries for strikers' families.)
During the last week of June, the Teamster international's position became clear. "That's when the workers realized the international was not just slow-moving," said TDU organizer David Levin, who spent much of the strike in Pasco. "They'd made a policy decision not to help."
The event was a meeting in Las Vegas of 500 Teamster Western Region officers plus Hoffa and staff from the international. The agenda was a report on the first three months of the Hoffa administration. Although the Pasco IBP strike was the biggest in the Teamsters at the time, and certainly the major struggle in the West, not one official mentioned it from the podium.
Strikers asked to speak to the group, and Al Hobart agreed. But when officials arranged for bargaining committee member Melquiades Pereyra to attend, they scheduled his arrival after the meeting was over. Rabine and another Teamster official met with Pereyra to explain that the union leadership would take no actions against IBP. They said, for instance, that meeting with other IBP locals would be too antagonistic toward the company. Instead, Rabine would go to Pasco to settle the contract.
A few days later Rabine did indeed have a tentative settlement. For workers in the slaughter department the settlement had the same $1.57 over five years that the strike had squeezed out of the company by mid-June. Lower-paid processing workers would get an additional 25 cents.
The agreement also drops the former pension plan in favor of matching contributions to a 401(k) plan, up to three percent of wages. (Workers may contribute an additional three percent, unmatched.)
Company contributions to the former pension plan were up to about 15 percent, with longer-term employees getting higher contributions. Thus long-term employees would have been better off under the company’s June offer, even without the additional 25 cents.
For many, the loss of the pension adds up to a pay cut in the first year of the contract. "I'm going to be losing money," said Lewis Myers, a member of the negotiating committee. "I was building something for the future and now there's nothing."
Still, it was not shocking that the settlement was approved. "You cannot beat an international corporate giant with an isolated strike that has little or no official union backing," said Pereyra. That realization, on top of the economic hardships facing new immigrants, had lead a few hundred members to cross the picket lines.
But strikers at the ratification meeting were far from happy. Rank and file leaders had come prepared to talk about alternatives to settling. Since the strikers were well-organized and committed, why not return to work and continue the struggle inside? Wouldn't an ongoing effort for a decent settlement be better than accepting a bad one?
Hobart and Rabine anticipated these questions. They passed out copies of a motion approved by the local executive board, saying members either had to accept the contract or continue the strike. Discussion of alternatives was not allowed. Afterwards, Martinez told the two, "I want to thank you for selling us out!" Members gave her a standing ovation.
According to a local reporter, Hobart and Rabine were then booed out of the meeting hall and left with a police escort.
Al Hobart is now in charge of the local as the international's trustee.
"These strikers built an organization to keep on fighting the unsafe conditions. And they're on their way to taking back their local union," said TDU National Organizer Ken Paff. "Hoffa's move to delay elections only postpones the inevitable."
Martinez agrees. "Our members will never stand for this," she said. "Sooner or later, the members will have a chance to vote."