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.

In June, Sen. Paul Wellstone introduced legislation aimed at curbing management's ability to abuse labor. Under the Minnesota Democrat's Right-to-Organize Act of 2001, employers would face stiffer penalties for illegally firing pro-union workers and union elections would be expedited. Another bill, introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, would prohibit the hiring of permanent workers to replace striking employees--a common practice since President Reagan fired 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981. But in the wake of terrorist attacks neither bill is likely to get a hearing anytime soon.

If and when the legislation does come up for a vote, Rachleff is pessimistic about its prospects. "The labor movement doesn't have enough political clout to force labor law reform," he says, describing what he calls a vicious cycle. "And without labor law reform the labor movement continues to be unable to organize and build the political clout that they would need to get labor law reform."

As a result, Rachleff believes the only practical solution is to return to kinds of direct actions that took place before the NLRB was created. "Nobody ever gets anything in American society by constructing themselves as a victim. That doesn't happen in American history. People get stuff because they organize and raise a ruckus."

Alex Ostroy


Brothers Ludwig and Elmer Rosen founded a livestock trading company in 1946. Over the years the company has become an agribusiness giant. According to Minneapolis-St. Paul CityBusiness, Rosen's Diversified is now the 16th largest privately held company in the state. In 2000 the company generated $700 million in revenue, a 12.9 percent increase over the previous year, and employed 1,800 people. In addition to operating slaughterhouses in South St. Paul, Long Prairie, and Yankton, South Dakota, the company also sells crop protection chemicals (such as insecticides and herbicides) throughout the Midwest. Tom Rosen, Elmer's 53-year-old son, is now the chief executive officer of the company.

Kelvin Berens, the attorney who is currently representing the company in their dispute with the UFCW, says he is "not authorized to speak on [the company's] behalf in this matter." Plant manager Steve Cortinas referred all questions to Dominick Driano, the company's in-house attorney. Driano failed to return three separate phone calls. Tom Rosen has also failed to respond to repeated interview requests from City Pages.

Local 789 has not had any better luck. Following the NLRB's decision in August, Pearson requested a meeting with Rosen to outline the local's plans and make one last plea for negotiations. "Before we start pissing in each other's pockets let's sit face to face and have this discussion," Pearson reasoned. The summit was nixed. Now the union is pledging all-out warfare.

In the coming weeks, Local 789 hopes to move the battlefield from the courtroom to the court of public opinion. They are planning to mobilize dozens of Dakota Premium workers, Local 789 members, and allies in the Hispanic community to protest the company's actions. If Pearson has his way, Tom Rosen's church in bucolic Fairmont, Minnesota, will be under siege on Sunday mornings; protesters will march through town in a "funeral procession" for workers' rights, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "Sí se puede" (Yes we can), a rallying cry coined by storied activist Cesar Chavez.

Local 789 also intends to distribute details of a 1999 settlement between Rosen's Long Prairie packing plant and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), concerning charges of male-on-male sexual harassment. In the EEOC's federal lawsuit, employees alleged that a pervasive atmosphere of sexual intimidation was allowed to fester at the slaughterhouse. Workers complained of having their faces repeatedly shoved into other men's crotches. Steel rods were purportedly thrust between men's legs while they attempted to work. And in the most extreme instances, workers reported that their heads were held down in vats of raw meat while other employees simulated a gang rape. "You don't feel like a person, but more like the meat on the conveyor belts and in the bins," a former employee said in an article about the suit in the January 2000 issue of Minnesota Monthly. Under the settlement, Long Prairie Packing agreed to pay $1.9 million to present and former employees, but acknowledged no wrongdoing.

"Let's see how important Tom Rosen's reputation is," Pearson blusters. "Let's see him explain the crap that went on in Long Prairie with the male-on-male sexual harassment. Let him explain what's happened at Dakota Premium and why this struggle for 200 Hispanic workers who want to be treated with some kind of dignity in the workplace is worth giving $500,000 to an attorney to fight. It's inconceivable to me that he should be able to walk away scot-free, without this big spotlight put on him."

Pearson is also threatening to file complaints with government agencies, claiming that illegal work practices are allowed to go on at the Dakota Premium plant. Workers have charged that illegal immigrants are knowingly employed at the slaughterhouse, that injuries are routinely ignored, and that employees are not always adequately compensated for their work. More disturbing, employees claim that workers occasionally urinate on the factory floor when supervisors won't allow them to use the bathroom. And in at least one instance, the union charges, a 16-year-old boy was illegally employed at the plant. Up until now, Pearson says that Local 789 has resisted reporting these violations for fear that the workers would suffer.

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