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.

"This case is a textbook illustration of the problem with American labor law as it stands now," says Brendan Cummins, a Minneapolis labor attorney who represented Local 789 in the initial appeals process. "Employers have many avenues to delay and impede workers' right to organize."

In the meantime, at least half of the workforce at the South St. Paul slaughterhouse has come and gone. Many who supported the initial organization drive have either grown disaffected by the delay or have moved on to other jobs. Some of the newer employees don't even know that a union election was held. And workers claim the speed of the slaughterhouse line has been gradually increasing.

"We have gone through a lot in the last year and a half," says Miguel Olvera, a union supporter who has worked at the plant for six years. "If we just give up, it will all be for nothing."

 

Naive is not a word that comes to mind when considering Bill Pearson's track record as a labor organizer. He has worked at UFCW Local 789 for 23 years, first as a union representative and then, for the last six years, as president. During that time, the 53-year-old former produce manager has encountered just about every bargaining ploy in the book, from broken promises to bogus financial figures. He has helped organize strikes at Iowa Pork and Country Club Markets, and he has mediated scores of contract disputes that never reached the picket lines.

Yet naive is the word Pearson uses to describe his initial approach to Rosen's Diversified in St. Paul. "I'm foolish enough to believe that if you have an election and you win it, you sit down and negotiate a contract," he says. "If I could redo this whole mess, there wouldn't have been an election. I would have demanded recognition and then said, 'Screw you, we're not working until we get a contract.'"

Pearson's newfound cynicism is understandable. In recent years, the right to unionize in the United States has become illusory. Companies like Rosen's Diversified, intent on keeping unions out of their workplace, have found ways to exploit loopholes in the National Labor Relations Act, which was designed to protect workers' right to organize.

In a report released last year, the international nonprofit group Human Rights Watch concluded that "freedom of association is a right under severe, often buckling pressure when workers in the United States try to exercise it." The study, conducted by Cornell University labor law professor Lance Compa, found that more than 20,000 workers are fired each year for attempting to organize. It cited dozens of instances, in fields ranging from meatpacking to shipbuilding to computer programming, where attempts by employees to form unions were met with blatant violations of the law and widespread discrimination.

Last February, for example, an administrative law judge found that Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork processor, wantonly ignored labor laws while fighting a union drive at a packinghouse in Wilson, North Carolina. The company fired pro-union workers, threatened others with termination, and warned that the plant could be shuttered--all violations of the National Labor Relations Act. The judge overturned the results of a 1999 election, in which Smithfield prevailed, and ordered the company to the bargaining table. Smithfield ignored the decree and is currently appealing the judge's ruling.

"There's no justice in this," scoffs Pearson. "People talk about the diminishing number of unionized workers. Well hell, it isn't because the unions aren't here. It's because the system that we operate under allows employers to slap workers around, abuse the entire process, and nothing happens."

Part of the problem, according to critics, is the very organization that was set up to guarantee workers' rights: the National Labor Relations Board. In the 1930s labor unions made unprecedented inroads nationwide, largely through direct actions such as sit-down strikes. In response Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, explicitly granting workers the legal right to collectively bargain and establishing the NLRB to enforce the legislation.

The legislation was hailed as a victory for unions. But labor historian Peter Rachleff, a professor at Macalester College, sees it otherwise. "The real functioning of the law was to slow the movement down, to get people to play by certain rules rather than to continue with the direct action that was bringing results," he posits.

Over the years, many argue that the NLRB has evolved into a paper tiger, slow to react and unwilling to inflict much pain on employers when they break the law. "It's not that the act can not be interpreted as providing stronger remedies, but the board over the years has been very cautious and conservative in doing that," observes James Gross, a professor of labor law at Cornell University who has written several books about the NLRB.

In addition, a cottage industry has evolved in the legal world over the last two decades, aimed at neutralizing organized labor. The end result is that union disputes drag on for years, while workers twist in the wind. "Really since Reagan fired the air traffic controllers there's been an explosion in the United States of anti-union law firms," Rachleff says. "These firms have come along and have realized that there are big loopholes in national labor law."

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