Hold The Pepperoni: Tyson Workers On Strike




S

triking
meatpackers in Jefferson, Wisconsin have their collective finger
in a dyke. Their strike and boycott of Tyson-made pizza toppings
is virtually all that stands between thousands of workers in the
beef and pork industry and a massive downgrade of wages and benefits
proposed by meat processing giant Tyson Foods. It’s an unusual
tactic, boycotting part of a product that most consumers see as
a package deal, but the 470 pepperoni-makers say their employer’s
outrageous demands have driven them to say, “Hold the pepperoni.” 


Known
for many years as the largest poultry processing corporation in
the world, at least three times the size of its closest competitor,
Arkansas-based Tyson Foods took over 20 beef and pork processing
plants in 2001 when it bought out IBP Fresh Meats, formerly Iowa
Beef Processing. Tyson now owns roughly one-quarter of the entire
U.S. meat processing industry, with reported sales of $23 billion
last year—almost $2 billion of that in profits. The Jefferson
plant pumps out 65 million pounds of pepperoni a year, about 40
to 50 percent of Tyson’s pepperoni. Tyson workers in Jefferson
manufacture toppings for Pizza Hut and Kraft Foods, supplying approximately
55 percent of Kraft’s pepperoni for DiGiorno, Tombstone, and
Jack’s pizzas. 


Yet
for all its profitability, notes Local 538 president Mike Rice,
Tyson’s “corporate philosophy” easily tipped the
scales against workers. When contract negotiations began at the
Jefferson plant in the spring of 2002, Tyson immediately proposed
devastating cuts in virtually every area of the union contract,
threatening to worsen conditions at the Jefferson plant to the level
of Tyson’s chicken plants in the Deep South. 


Tyson
negotiators have demanded lower pay, fewer holidays, and less sick
leave for new hires; for current employees—a wage freeze with
one-time bonuses instead of pay increases—an end to pension
contributions in favor of a new 401k personal investment plan (featuring
Tyson stock of course), and less vacation time for employees. Local
538 has filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge with the National
Labor Relations Board, alleging the company has not bargained in
“good faith,” a violation of the 1935 Wagner Act. 


Company
negotiators insist that their offer is fair because it will bring
the Jefferson plant in line with their other operations. Besides,
they say, most of the changes won’t affect current “team
members.” 


“We’re
team members until it comes to compensation,” Rice notes sardonically.
“On the side of their trucks, the company has written, ‘Tyson
is what your family deserves.’ But our families don’t
deserve this.” 



Who
Deserves This? 



T

he
workers finally voted 400 to 9 for a strike and when the last contract
extension expired at noon on February 28, workers inside the plant
blew their whistles as loud as they could and marched out to join
the picket  line outside. Just about everybody in the
7,300-member community has been affected in one way or another by
the crisis of the 470 Tyson workers. Strikers have broad sympathy
in Jefferson. Some groceries in the Jefferson area have stopped
carrying Tyson products in solidarity and a nearby gas station has
been leaving its restrooms unlocked 24 hours a day for the picketers
in front of the Tyson plant. “Somebody comes in every day and
leaves enough money to pay for coffee for the strikers,” one
station employee told the press. 


Members
of other unions have joined strikers on the picket line. Passersby
routinely honk in support of the handful of workers who walk the
picket line. Strikers have sent “Truth Squads” across
the country, including to the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas
on March 25, informing pizza parlor operators, and consumers, of
Tyson’s moves against the Jefferson workers. 


Truth
Squads have found the public to be responsive to their message,
at least as far as they have reached them. But nationally, few pizza
lovers know about the strike, much less the reasons for it, perhaps
in part because the message is harder to convey than most simple
boycott sloganeering, such as “Boycott Taco Bell.” 


So
why not boycott all Tyson products or Tyson’s customers? For
one thing, explains Jill Cashen from UFCW headquarters, Tyson is
a big company, employing 120,000 people in 300 meatpacking plants
in the U.S. and other countries, many of them UFCW members. For
another, the “hold- the-pepperoni” strategy focuses the
attack on profits normally made from the affected workers and it
is likely to prove more effective than a scattershot approach. 


Moreover,
current U.S. labor law prohibits secondary boycotts, that is, targeting
customers of the employer at issue. But the point of the strategy
is to decrease the sale of Tyson-made pepperoni anyway, not to cut
pizza consumption. The Tyson-free pizza trend could impact the pizza
companies’ bottom line and the strikers hope their complaints
will trickle up the pepperoni pipeline to Tyson. But the main goal
is to hurt Tyson’s pepperoni sales during the strike—and
expose Tyson’s “corporate philosophy.” 



Corporate
Philosophy 



I

n
some ways the dispute is a clash of traditions. Chicken processing
is virtually non-union and Tyson has been processing poultry for
over 100 years, mostly in the South. Red meat processing, on the
other hand, is heavily unionized. The Jefferson plant made pepperoni,
bologna, and sausage for 125 years before Tyson bought more than
20 former IBP beef processing plants in 2001, including the Jefferson
plant. Rice says he has negotiated contracts at Jefferson with five
different employers over the years without a single hour of lost
work due to any labor dispute. But Tyson’s chicken plants in
the South pay less, offer inferior benefits, and operate under harsher
conditions than Jefferson workers have faced before. 


Chicken
processing in general is notorious for hazardous conditions, low
wages—sometimes below the legal minimum without extra pay for
overtime—and abuse of underage or undocumented workers. In
January 2001, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that none of
the chicken processing plants it surveyed were in compliance with
the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural
Workers Protection Act, and the Family and Medical Leave Act. Tyson
has been investigated for wage and hour violations as well as conspiring
to import undocumented workers and furnish them with phony “green
cards.” Tyson employees have historically had high turnover
rates, an average of 73 percent over 84 plants in 21 states in 1998.
Most Tyson employees earn $7 to $8 an hour, or $14,000 to $16,000
a year. 


Not
that Tyson’s chicken plants don’t fight back. In 1999,
over 250 poultry processing workers in Corydon, Indiana struck the
Tyson plant there after Tyson bought the plant from the Hudson Corporation
and demanded major concessions including elimination of paid break
time, reduced overtime pay, and bereavement leave. Tyson also balked
at one seemingly civic- minded union demand: the workers wanted
the right to discard contaminated or diseased meat. Following on
the heels of massive national recalls of meat due to salmonella
and listeria outbreaks, the union demand resonated with the public
—but not with Tyson management. 


Strikes
at Tyson, however, have been few. Many Southern states have “right-to-work”
laws that weaken unions and high poverty rates that add to the pressures
felt by Tyson workers to accept less. Tyson has a reputation for
ruthlessness and its size certainly helps. 


True,
Tyson has been somewhat less profitable since taking over IBP in
a contentious legal battle. IBP had apparently failed to properly
report earnings and Tyson tried to back out of the deal, but the
courts ruled the “merger” must go ahead. Rice calls this
decision, “the saddest day of my life.” In the first quarter
of 2003 Tyson reported only $39 million in profits and $72 million
in profits in the second quarter, which includes a $65 million partial
settlement in its price- fixing suit against makers of vitamins
used in animal feeds. Without the settlement, both quarters represent
declines in profits from the same period the previous year. 


But,
as U.S. Representative Tammy Baldwin (D-Madison) told the strikers,
“The fact is, your plant made money.” Baldwin’s letter
acknowledged the “tough economic times,” but noted, “that
does not mean working men and women should be left with dealing
with the burden of the slow economy alone.” 

Thin End
of the Wedge 



T

yson
employees in other plants fear that they may be next. The contract
at the Jefferson plant is the first there since Tyson bought out
IBP and it may well set the pattern for bargaining at the rest.
If the company succeeds in breaking the strike at Jefferson, the
workers say, there would likely be a ripple effect throughout the
country affecting many thousands of workers and their communities.
On the other hand, if the workers can beat back the company’s
attempts at eroding their standard of living, they could put the
union in a stronger bargaining position for the next contract negotiations. 


The
first two months in what promises to be a long battle, owing to
the stakes, have already been tough. Just two days before the walkout,
Gary Gilbertson, the president of Local 538, died suddenly of a
heart attack after eight months of negotiating with Tyson Foods.
Tyson has hired strikebreakers to keep the Jefferson plant going
and management has threatened to permanently replace (i.e., “fire”)
the strikers. Strike pay is only $100 a week and many of the workers’
spouses have been forced to take second jobs to pay the bills. But
the strikers and their supporters remain defiant. 


No
union members have yet crossed the picket line. In May, the UFCW
mailed out half a million bulletins asking pizza-loving workers
around the country to say, “Make mine Tyson-free.” Already
their fight may be having an effect, says Rice. Sources inside the
plant have told the union that production is down to almost 15 percent
of normal. There has been a high turnover among the strikebreakers,
and strikers recently held protests outside the temp agency supplying
the scabs. The workers seem well aware that their fight is both
a tough one and one that has an importance beyond themselves. Rice
remains hopeful that the strike and boycott will find support among
pizza lovers nationwide, but he still calls it a David-and-Goliath
battle. 







Ricky
Baldwin is a writer, activist and organizer focusing on labor, race,
and U.S. foreign policy. His articles have appeared in Z



Magazine, Labor Notes, Extra!



and elsewhere.