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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
"There's a thousand ways to attack an employer," Pearson observes. "But the problem is that when you do that you can destroy the plant. And then when we lose the jobs, when we've put the workers out of work, that's no service to the people that we're there to supposedly represent. That's why this has been so frustrating. As angry as I get, I can't do the things that I should do to respond and attack. But we're at that point."
A century ago, the largest slaughterhouse in the country occupied the ground that surrounds Local 789's office. In 1879 Swift & Company opened its South St. Paul plant and employed 300. By 1918 there were 3,500 workers slaughtering and processing 306,334 cattle, 148,861 sheep, and 1,161,752 hogs a year. At its peak during World War II, the Swift plant had a workforce of 5,000 and occupied 28 acres along the Mississippi River. Along with meat, the factory produced lard, baby foods, fertilizer, and other animal byproducts.
In 1919, Swift's chief competitor, Armour & Company, opened its own behemoth packinghouse in South St. Paul. The facility cost $14,000,000 to construct, occupied a half-mile of land, and even housed a branch of the public library. At the height of production, the Armour plant slaughtered 700 hogs, 100 cattle, and 1,000 calves and sheep hourly.
Swift and Armour were joined in Dakota County by smaller packinghouses, such as Concord Meat Processing and the Cudahy plant in neighboring Newport. By the 1920s, South St. Paul, along with Omaha and Chicago, had emerged as a key hub of meat production in the country. And company resistance to organized labor was present from the beginning.
James Capeti was the original vice president of United Packinghouse Workers of America Local 4, chartered on February 16, 1939, in South St. Paul. Now 91 years old, Capeti says that the charter was preceded by a brutal three-year organizing battle. Anyone caught advocating for the union was immediately fired. "You couldn't talk union in the plant," recalls Capeti, who worked at Armour for 39 years and still lives in South St. Paul. "You had to do all your organizing in the saloons after work and in the streets." In the end, though, the long struggle for union recognition paid dividends for packinghouse workers. "Everything that they ever gained was from the union," Capeti attests.
In March 1948 the United Packinghouse Workers called a nationwide strike, demanding a 29-cent pay raise. One hundred thousand workers walked off the job. After two months on the picket lines, violence erupted in South St. Paul. When police attempted to disperse picketers blocking the entrance to the Swift plant, officers were beaten with fists and clubs. At the Cudahy plant, striking workers kidnapped employees who had crossed the picket line and destroyed machinery. Finally the National Guard was called in and the strike was broken. The struggle yielded a nine-cent raise.
"The packinghouse workers' union was as militant a group as there was out there and had built some really great contracts," says Pearson. "Workers in the Sixties and Seventies made wonderful money working in a packinghouse."
Joe Stoi started work at the Armour plant in 1952, when he was 18 years old. He stayed on as a machinist until the plant closed in 1979, when its payroll was down to 800 workers. "All my relatives worked in the plant," he recalls. Stoi, who now owns a sewer-cleaning business in St. Paul, says he was making a respectable $12 an hour when Armour closed its doors.
Labor historian Rachleff says that at a certain point larger companies decided it was no longer economically sound to maintain the packinghouses. The Swift plant closed a decade before the Armour factory. Dakota Premium and a few other small plants are now the only remnants of the meatpacking industry. "The place has gone to hell so badly that for sure you can't fix it up and then you start to build new plants," he says, noting that this phenomenon is not peculiar to the meatpacking industry. "You look for greener pastures to place them."
What's more, the advent of refrigerated trucks made it possible to open factories in rural areas that hadn't been reached by organized labor. The industry titans, Swift and Armour, were replaced by companies such as Iowa Beef Packers, ConAgra, and Cargill. Gradually the power of unions in the meatpacking industry diminished. The once-mighty United Packinghouse Workers merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters, which in turn merged with retail clerks to form the UFCW. Wages failed to keep pace with inflation and were often slashed dramatically.
A symbolic low point was reached in the mid-Eighties at the Hormel plant in Austin, Minnesota. After the company reduced hourly wages from $10.69 to $8.25, despite annual profits of $29.5 million, 1,750 workers went on strike. The national leadership of the UFCW failed to support the local union, believing their demands to be quixotic. Hormel refused to bargain. After a bitter year-long struggle the strike ended without the company budging an inch.
"That was the last stand of strong unions in meatpacking," says Mark Grey, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who has written extensively about the industry. "Ever since then a union or nonunion plant pays essentially the same wages, the union has relatively little power, and strikes in the industry are virtually unheard-of."
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.
Espinosa, Hesse, and Olvera head back to the union office. The frustration is palpable. After 15 months of organizing the union is no closer to representing the workers at Dakota Premium than it was the day employees refused to work. Hesse is supposed to be dedicating his energies to the Local 789's chief goal for the year: organizing workers at giant retail chains such as Target and K-Mart. But because of the ongoing stalemate at Dakota Premium, much of his time has been spent dealing with slaughterhouse issues.
"Obviously this is a social justice issue for us," Hesse insists. "We're not gonna walk away from these guys."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.