Organized Slaughter

Falling carcasses and untreated injuries: Meatpackers at Dakota Premium Foods were driven to form a union. But not even that got the company's attention.

Shortly after 6:00 a.m. on June 1, 2000, the meatpacking line at Dakota Premium Foods in South St. Paul ground to a halt. The cattle carcasses that are slaughtered and dismembered at a rate of almost 800 a day hung motionless from their hooks. The only carnage occurring was economic: In the slaughterhouse business, time is money.

The work stoppage had been coming for weeks, as the mostly Hispanic personnel at the company began to grumble about the increasing speed of production. Those laboring on the line figured that the number of cows slaughtered per hour had risen from 67 to 111. The workday usually stretched from 6:00 a.m. until 3:00 p.m. Suddenly employees were hanging up their knives and removing their bloodied smocks by 1:30 p.m., and yet the same number of cattle had been processed.

When dozens of men and women wield sharp blades in close quarters, amid the deafening clamor of machinery, injuries often result. In fact, meatpacking is the most dangerous work in America; that's according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which found that a quarter of the 1.5 million meatpacking employees in the U.S. suffered job-related illnesses or injuries in 1999. Knife lacerations, chemical burns, and repetitive-motion injuries are routine. Death, sometimes by decapitation, is an everyday threat. When the line speeds up, the risk of injury increases.

Alex Ostroy

On the morning of June 1, workers sensed the rate of production had increased once again. Many of them complained to supervisors on the factory floor. The response, according to a three-year veteran on the line: If you can't keep up with the work then there's the door. When the complaints persisted, floor supervisors summoned plant manager Steve Cortinas. According to the same employee, Cortinas upped the ante. "He was furious. He was threatening everybody that he was going to fire everybody and get new people." So, exasperated and fearing for their safety, the 200 slaughterhouse employees refused to work. "That day we were fed up with the whole thing."

The impromptu strike dragged on throughout the morning, as Cortinas attempted to assuage the disgruntled workers. Shortly after noon, as chaos continued to rule the killing-house floor, one of the laborers walked a quarter-mile up the road to the headquarters of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) Local 789. The UFCW also represents the rank and file at the Long Prairie Packing Company north of the Twin Cities, which is owned by Rosen's Diversified--the same company that owns Dakota Premium.

The local dispatched union representatives Howard Kern and Tom Oswald to the scene. "We went to the gate and immediately were swarmed by people," Oswald recalls. As plant supervisors looked on, the two organizers were peppered with questions, some delivered in English, most spoken in Spanish: How could Local 789 help the workers? Was there an initiation fee? How much were monthly dues? Inside two hours, more than 80 workers had signed registration cards that said they wanted Local 789 to represent them, more than the 30 percent required by law to force an election.

Eventually, Cortinas agreed to slow the assembly line down to 95 cows per hour, and the workers returned to the slaughterhouse. Dakota Premium issued a press release claiming that "the vast majority of the plant employees have made it clear they do not want a union." A month later, in an election sanctioned by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the workers at Dakota Premium voted by a margin of 112 to 71 to be represented by Local 789.

It wasn't the first time the UFCW had tried to unionize the South St. Paul plant. In 1991 the local won a similar election at the slaughterhouse. But after negotiating with management for a year, the UFCW failed to come up with a mutually agreeable labor contract and the NLRB, concluding both parties had negotiated in good faith, decertified the union. This time around, however, William Pearson, president of the UFCW, believed a contract was imminent--in large part because his organization's relationship with management at Rosen's Diversified's Long Prairie meat packing plant had been relatively amicable. "I said to people repeatedly, 'This company will come to the table and bargain a contract,'" he says. "We've got a good relationship with them. There's no reason to fight us."

Fifteen months later Local 789 and Rosen's Diversified are getting ready to take the gloves off. Immediately after the July election, Dakota Premium appealed the results to the NLRB, charging that Local 789 had illegally interfered with the vote. Among other things, the company claimed that a pro-union worker offered money for votes and threatened people with deportation. Dakota Premium also alleged that Local 789 distributed prejudicial propaganda. In mid-November 2000, after six days of hearings, an administrative law judge representing the NLRB rejected all of the company's arguments and ordered that the union be certified. The loser immediately filed an appeal. On August 27, 2001, the NLRB upheld their initial ruling. The UFCW was certified as the bargaining representative for factory workers at Dakota Premium. Local 789 threw a party for the slaughterhouse employees at their office.

The revelry was premature. Despite the NLRB's rulings, Rosen's Diversified refused to recognize the union. To this day no negotiations have taken place between the company and Local 789. The UFCW is now seeking an "order to bargain" from the NLRB. But even if it receives such an edict, the company can postpone negotiations by taking its fight to the federal courts--a process that often lasts years.

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