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.

According to Rachleff, between 1980 and 1990 wages for meatpackers, factoring in inflation, declined by 44 percent. What once was a physically brutal but economically rewarding profession was essentially transformed into sweatshop labor. Summarizes Rachleff: "We've gone from a situation where blue-collar workers could imagine owning a home, owning a fairly new car, sending their kids to college, and expecting that those kids would not have to do the kind of work that they had done, to turning back to Upton Sinclair and The Jungle, where we get a treadmill workforce that works until they're worn out, broken down, deported, thrown away, and then they're replaced by somebody just like them."

Not surprisingly, as wages tumbled to $10 an hour or less, American workers turned away from the backbreaking task of meatpacking. After all, unskilled workers could make better money manning a cash register at the grocery store. And they wouldn't have to finish the day covered in blood and smelling of dead animals. As labor shortages became acute, slaughterhouses began to hire immigrants--largely from Mexico and sometimes in the country illegally--who were often unfamiliar with American labor laws, spoke little English, and lived in fear of deportation. "[Immigrant workers] tend to keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and just take whatever happens," Local 789's Bill Pearson says.

Which is why the labor stoppage at the Dakota Premium in June of 2000 was so surprising. "It's remarkable to me that the Latinos at the plant would go to the UFCW and try to get something going," Grey concludes. "Generally speaking immigrants and refugees have been reluctant to go to unions. UFCW has in many places sought to organize immigrants and refugees, but historically that has been a hard row to hoe."

 

Local 789 is struggling to reinvigorate the workforce at Dakota Premium. In May, the union offered English classes at its office. Fifty-one Dakota Premium workers signed up for the lessons, but only one showed up. "Something happened," laughs union representative Bernie Hesse, speculating that employees were informed by management that learning English would not be a good career move.

Since midsummer, the union has been calling on packinghouse workers at their homes. Week after week representatives sit in employees' living rooms or kitchens and attempt to explain why 15 months have passed and the union remains a rallying cry rather than a reality. This evening Hesse, Rafael Espinosa, and Miguel Olvera are headed to the East Side of St. Paul. Olvera is a Dakota Premium employee and union stalwart. Espinosa was hired by Local 789 last spring to work specifically with Hispanic workers. "Because the process is taking so long, some of the workers who were very emboldened before are lost," he explains. "To them it seems like the legal [advantage] is with the company, not with the workers."

Espinosa also believes that packinghouse workers were discouraged by the amount of support Minnesota nurses received when they went on strike last June. In particular, the Latino employees wonder why their own plight has not received the same type of media coverage "They were saying that people don't care what happens to them," Espinosa says.

Inside a modest East Side home, lit only by the fading daylight, three Dakota Premium employees have gathered, along with some of their family members. As Espinosa translates Spanish to English, it quickly becomes clear that they are ambivalent about whether it makes any sense to continue fighting.

"There's nothing we can do about the company," says an exasperated middle-aged woman, rocking a sleeping baby. She has worked at Dakota Premium as a fat trimmer for five years. "All these things we went through and nothing's happened." (Of the workers talked to for this article, only Olvera would allow his name to be used. The rest were afraid of retribution.)

Those gathered also worry that trying to garner support for the union will only become more difficult in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Supervisors at the plant have been warning that layoffs may occur as a result of the economic downturn. "With all the things that are going on right now a lot of people think twice before they get involved in the struggle," Olvera observes.

The conversation eventually turns from the union struggle to complaints about working conditions. The workers allege that illegal immigrants make up an increasing percentage of the workforce, that preferential treatment is given to workers who are anti-union, injuries frequently go untreated, and the speed of the line has been gradually increasing since last July. One woman says that a co-worker recently slipped on some cow fat and fell down the stairs, but was ordered back to the line. Another man tells stories of cattle carcasses slipping off hooks and falling on employees, because the equipment at the plant is outdated. "When people get cut they just put tape over it and send them back to work," he charges.

"If they know they can get away with it they'll do it," summarizes Olvera.

After more than an hour of conversation, the atmosphere is subdued. The workers continue to support the struggle in theory, but they also appear unwilling to put their jobs on the line to take a stand. They will not be staging another impromptu strike anytime soon.

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