Immigrant Meatpackers Join Forces With the Union and the Church

St. Agnes Church and its sister parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, are the heart of south Omaha, Nebraska. Every Sunday, hundreds of packinghouse workers-Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans-dress up in their best clothes and stream through St. Agnes’ doors for Spanish Mass. On the last Sunday in April, as Mass began, Father Damian Zuerlein spoke to the subject on everyone’s mind-the coming election at the ConAgra beef plant.

“Our community knows the unequal treatment of the poor, and the time has come to make a decision.” He introduced the plant’s union committee. “Speak about your struggle for justice,” he urged them.

Olga Espinoza, who works on the kill floor, made her way forward. Describing the accidents she had seen in her eight years on the line, she announced, “We’ve made our decision and we won’t take one step backwards. I want everyone to stand who’s for the union.” A couple of dozen workers slowly rose from the pews. Disappointed, she huddled at the back of the church with Sergio Sosa, the organizer for Omaha Together One Community (OTOC).

After the Mass, Espinoza gave it another try, asking workers to come forward to get Father Damian’s blessing. “Don’t be afraid,” she urged. “No one’s going to stop us this time.” Slowly people stood and moved toward the front. After a few minutes, over a hundred workers were on their feet, some with trepidation in their faces, but all determined that secret support for the union would be a thing of the past. From that moment, Espinoza later said, “we knew if we could stand up in the church on Sunday, we could do it in the plant on Monday.”

‘NOW! NOW!’

And that’s what happened. The following week the company made its final big play. Supervisors ordered workers to a mandatory meeting to hear a ConAgra vice president tell them why the union was a bad idea.

A year before, the same speech by the same man to many of the same workers had resulted in a big majority vote against the union. But this time the atmosphere had changed. Almost before he began speaking, workers were hooting and yelling.

As he finished, Espinoza stood up. She walked to the front and demanded the microphone. She fired off the first of three questions the activists in her department had agreed she should ask. “If you’re so concerned about us, why haven’t you fixed the place where Tiberio fell and was hurt? Are you waiting for someone else to get hurt too?”

Finally the human relations director replied that she’d give the answer to anyone who came by themselves to her office later on. “We began chanting, ‘Now! Now!’” Espinoza recalled. “Then they told us there wasn’t any more time for questions and to go back to work.” That Friday 251 people voted for the union, with 126 against.

A UNION OF IMMIGRANTS

Later the company credited the Mass with turning the tide against them. They weren’t far wrong. For the Mass was a visible symbol of something deeper-a long-term coalition between the United Food and Commercial Workers and Omaha Together One Community, a community-based organizing project. Together they are working to re-unionize the Omaha meatpacking industry. And what works in Omaha may work elsewhere too.

The meatpacking industry has always relied on immigrants. For a hundred years, through the 1960s and ‘70s, they were overwhelmingly Eastern Europeans, with smaller numbers of African-Americans, especially in the South. Today most workers come from Mexico, with some from Central America. Refugees from Bosnia, Vietnam, and even the Sudan are a growing presence in some plants.

The languages in the plants have changed, but the problems haven’t. “They want you to work as fast as possible, there are lots of accidents, and no one cares about the price we pay,” says Tiberio Chavez, the injured maintenance worker and an open union supporter who was fired by ConAgra.

As meatpacking has changed from skilled butchering to factories with fast-moving disassembly lines, a worker might cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Line speeds have increased enormously, and as workers repeat the same motions over and over, injury rates have skyrocketed.

The new corporate giants of the restructured industry have cut costs by attacking unions. In the 1980s the UFCW granted contract concessions, but it didn’t work; the old unionized companies disappeared from many cities. Their places were taken by new non-union plants: ConAgra, Greater Omaha Packing Co., Nebraska Beef, and QPI. By 1999 meatpacking wages had fallen to $4 below the manufacturing average.

As the companies sought to fill the plants without raising wages, the percentage of immigrant workers climbed. Companies sent recruiters to Mexico and to Los Angeles.

WISDOM AND COURAGE

As the demographic shift transformed the meatpacking workforce, Father Damian Zuerlein became the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in south Omaha. When Zuerlein arrived in 1990, there was only one Spanish Mass, and most Latino families in the church had been living in Omaha for two or three generations. Ten years later, 63 percent of Omaha Catholics had been in the U.S. less than five years.

While the older generation was jealous of the new arrivals at first, their attitudes changed when the church began organizing in the plants. Many had been loyal meatpacking union members themselves in earlier years.

Zuerlein began organizing workers at Greater Omaha Packing in 1996. “I requested to come to Guadalupe because it was a poor parish,” he explained. “And I asked myself, in this community, shouldn’t it be possible to prevent some of people’s suffering? And the only way was to help people organize. Working alone leaves no lasting impact. Besides, we all acquire greater wisdom and courage when we put our faith into action, when we put ourselves on the line.”

“We were able to get them together very quickly, because the conditions in the plant were so bad,” he explains. “People weren’t getting bathroom breaks, and even urinated in their clothes on the line. The line speed was tremendous, and lots of workers showed symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. But management sent spies into our group, and after a meeting with the plant manager, everyone involved in the effort was fired. We concluded that we needed to root our organizing deeper in the plant, and identify and train leaders willing to make a commitment.”

Zuerlein became a magnet for people seeking to apply liberation theology among Latinos in the U.S. One was Sergio Sosa, a former seminarian and veteran of the radical movement that organized poor Mayan peasants during Guatemala’s genocidal war, which took the lives of over 200,000 indigenous people. Sosa was hired by Father Zuerlein and Tom Holler, who started Omaha Together One Community. OTOC is a project of the Industrial Areas Foundation, started by Saul Alinsky in the late 1940s among meatpacking workers in Chicago’s back-of-the-yards neighborhood.

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In Omaha’s plants Sosa encountered a workforce that was a mixture of documented and undocumented workers, often in the same families and all part of a broad network of relationships. The OTOC strategy calls for using those networks to organize first outside the plant, setting up soccer leagues, for instance.

OTOC developed its community-based approach out of a realization that there is often a yawning cultural divide between the unions and the new workers that makes the union seem alien and inhospitable. Union organizing in the traditional style of passing out leaflets at the gate only tips the company off and provokes an anti-union campaign inside the plant which terrorizes workers. The standard speeches about wages and benefits don’t inspire people to risk their jobs and even deportation.

Sosa began holding one-on-one meetings with workers “to create relations with people, discover their interests, look for talents, identify leaders, and connect those leaders in order to begin to organize.”

Sosa recalls doing the same thing in Guatemala. “I think a lot of Latin Americans do this. It is part of our culture. But I think the art is to connect this whole cultural structure of social networks with African-Americans, with Anglo-Saxons, and others, in order to create power. Latinos can do many things and this is our moment. But we can’t do it alone.”

COMMUNITY MEETS UNIONM

The first OTOC committees were wiped out by Operation Vanguard, a huge INS immigration enforcement scheme, in 1999. “But Operation Vanguard did raise the profile of the conditions in the plants, and of immigration as an issue,” Holler says. Through community forums, OTOC and community leaders put pressure on public officials to call for improvements. They finally convinced Governor Mike Johanns to support a workers’ bill of rights, which included the right to organize.

While fighting for the measure, OTOC developed its relationship with the UFCW, a process that started when they both opposed Operation Vanguard. At the beginning, Holler and Zuerlein had trouble connecting with local UFCW officials. But after Operation Vanguard, many UFCW officials became convinced that sanctions had become a weapon to prevent immigrant workers from exercising their labor rights.

Supporting the union wasn’t an automatic response for Omaha workers, however. The committee Sosa had reorganized held several meetings in which they listed over 150 questions they wanted to ask union officials, about everything from their rights as prospective union members, to wages in union plants, to the union’s record on defending grievances.

The list was reduced to a more manageable number, and 21 workers met with a group of high-ranking UFCW officials. After the meeting, people were divided. Seven workers voted against being part of UFCW and left. The rest joined.

Since that time, committees have been organized in each plant. Carl Ariston, the lead UFCW organizer and a former meatpacking worker who lost his job trying to organize a non-union plant in Storm Lake, Iowa, credits the committee at ConAgra with the May election victory.

THE COMMITTEE

“Our committee was united and educated and active,” he explains. The UFCW had four organizers assigned to the campaign and OTOC two, including former meatpacking worker Marcela Cervantes. “The committee did most of the work of signing cards and getting people active, talking inside the plant, and going with organizers on house calls.” They also wrote articles for a newsletter, La Neta (The Truth), that they distributed inside the plant.

“The Mass was the workers’ idea,” adds Zuerlein. “They needed a spiritual space where they wouldn’t be afraid, and what we’re doing has a long tradition. We’re showing them even if they lose their job, they’re part of a broader community that will support them.”

When Ariston looks at OTOC’s contribution, he sees the church. “It adds to our credibility, and that connection makes us seem more familiar to workers.” Ariston put his own ideas into the mix, making arrangements for Espinoza, Chavez, and other committee members to broadcast announcements for the union on Spanish-language radio.

Winning an election at ConAgra, and the smaller Armour-Swift-Eckrich sausage plant, is not the end of the battle. ConAgra has to be convinced to sign a contract. But ConAgra Vice President Jim Herlihy says the company won’t appeal the election results.

Seventy-eight ConAgra plants are already under contract, “and the company doesn’t look at unions as evil,” Ariston says. That differentiates them from the majority of large U.S. corporations, who do. Certainly, if the union wins at Nebraska Beef, where the UFCW lost an election last year after the company mounted a fierce anti-union campaign, getting a contract may require a war.

TWO CHALLENGES

Beyond these immediate contract problems, two larger dilemmas are approaching rapidly. As the Omaha plants get organized, hundreds of new Latino members will pour into UFCW Local 271. The local now has less than a thousand members, most of whom aren’t immigrants and don’t speak Spanish. The new members will have organized themselves in an autonomous way, and are not likely to be content simply paying dues as passive members.

“These immigrant workers are going to be a challenge for the union here,” Zuerlein says. Ariston responds that the UFCW international is sending teams of researchers and trainers to help the local fight companies in organizing drives and establish a strong steward structure. Improving wages and working conditions will be the other challenge. On the one hand, if the union doesn’t mount a major drive for improvements, alliances like that with OTOC won’t be enough to win the loyalty of this new workforce. But workers’ expectations, combined with their bottom-up methods of organizing, could kick off a major challenge to the low-wage economy of meatpacking.

Those were the basic elements used by the old United Packinghouse Workers of America in its heyday, when it won master agreements and organized virtually the entire industry. That history may be coming to life again in Omaha.

For Spanish version of this article, click here.