Immigrant Meatpackers Wildcat in Amarillo; Get No Support From Their Union
More than 700 Teamsters in Amarillo, Texas are on a wildcat strike against the largest meatpacker in the world, IBP-Tyson, and against Teamsters Local 577. This is the third wildcat strike in as many years against meatpacking companies represented by the Teamsters.
On September 18 workers walked out over safety, understaffing, bad treatment from supervisors, and lack of representation from their union.
Since then 500 workers have been fired. The company has vowed to keep strike leaders out of the plant forever. Perhaps eighty-five percent of the Amarillo workers are Latinos, mainly immigrants from Mexico and South and Central America, with others from Laos, Vietnam, and Bosnia.
Starting wage at the 3,500-worker plant is $9 an hour, with no one earning much more than $12. Workers say that other plants in the area pay as much as $2 an hour more. The low wages cause high turnover and serious understaffing.
Around Labor Day a group of chuckboners went to management to try to negotiate more money. The company would do nothing without the union, and the union wouldn't help.
On September 17 IBP said, "No more money, you're in the middle of a contract." Management knew there was trouble brewing and had invited county sheriffs into the plant. Some people walked off the job and others were escorted out by the sheriffs.
Workers have created a small city of tents, tarps, and cars across the street from the plant. Signs that say "United as One," "More Safety," and "Equal for IBP Employees" are drawn on the tarps and cars. Workers demand that IBP-Tyson return them to their former jobs with their seniority and begin discussing the problems in the plant.
Tyson Foods, the world's largest chicken producer, recently purchased IBP, the world's largest red meat producer and second largest pork producer.
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About one in three workers gets hurt while working in America's meat plants. Production speed is mind-boggling and work crews are understaffed. According to workers at the Amarillo plant, up to 410 cows are slaughtered per hour and the chain never stops, in spite of serious injuries.
"The chain runs so fast and you can't keep up," reported one striker and 12-year veteran. "The supervisors treat us like animals, we get injured, the chain runs fast, we are short people, and the union has not helped us. We had no choice."
One worker on the picket line had been shot in the stomach with a "bolt gun" used to stun the cows before they are skinned, and then was forced back to work even though his wound had not healed. Over the years workers have had fingers chopped off by hydraulic scissors because, in order to save money, IBP refused to install the equipment according to manufacturer's instructions.
LOCAL 577: MISSING IN ACTION
Local union officials are nowhere to be found. No representative of Local 577 has come to visit or support the workers since they were escorted out of the plant. This is not surprising considering that President Rusty Stepp lives more like IBP-Tyson's CEO than like the workers. Stepp makes more than $104,000 a year, five times as much as his members.
Workers on their own accomplished what the union should have been doing all along. "Workers have reached out to the churches, LULAC [League of United Latin American Citizens], Teamsters for a Democratic Union, and people who are concerned about the conditions in our meat plants to put pressure on IBP-Tyson to do right by the workers and consumers," said Jeff Blackburn, one of the team of local attorneys representing the workers free of charge.
BATTLE FOR UNION'S SOUL
The strike is taking place in the midst of elections for top officers of the Teamsters International. Stepp is backing James Hoffa, who is 0 for 3 when it comes to supporting meatpacking workers fighting for better treatment on the job. In 1999, when Teamsters at IBP's Pasco, Washington beef plant walked off the job, Hoffa sent in his vice-president, who negotiated away workers' retirement benefit. Hoffa never showed on the picket line during the five-week strike.
Maria Martinez, who led the 1999 strike in Pasco and is now principal officer of Local 556 there, visited the Amarillo picket lines in October. "They walked out for the same reasons we did in '99," said Martinez. "The way the supervisors treat people, the speed of the chain-and people were tired of it."
Martinez is running for vice-president of the Teamsters International on the Rank and File Power Slate headed by Tom Leedham.
The workers are focused on winning amnesty for all strikers. They say that IBP-Tyson should not discriminate against workers who had the courage to stand up for safe working conditions.