Organizers: beef-processing plant is using recent immigration raids to bust union

"There's no question that workers are fearful," says union organizer Doug Mork
Paul Demko

On a cold, blustery weekday afternoon, a group of union officials are huddled outside a chain-link fence enclosing the Dakota Premium Foods plant in South St. Paul, which slaughters some 800 head of cattle daily.

The organizers from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789 carry stacks of fluorescent-orange flyers emblazoned in both English and Spanish. "I wonder if Dakota Premium has any New Year's Resolutions?" the flyers read. The missive goes on to list a few possibilities: "Faster line speed? Less training? Fewer bathroom breaks?"

Around 3:30, a stream of workers begin leaving through the gates. First off the clock are the folks who toil in the de-boning section. They're followed by the packaging unit, then the workers from the kill floor.

UFCW organizers attempt to hand flyers to the departing slaughterhouse employees. Some roll down car windows and chat amicably. Others hit the gas.

This has been the scene at the gates of Dakota Premium for the past six months. Organizers have also been visiting workers at home and holding regular meetings at the union's offices just a few blocks away.

The campaign has been prompted by a petition, filed by slaughterhouse workers with the National Labor Relations Board in June, seeking to decertify the 235-person bargaining unit at Dakota Premium. On January 25, an election will be held to determine whether employees still want to be represented by the UFCW.

The labor dispute has been festering for nearly a decade. In June 2000, workers at the slaughterhouse walked off the job to protest dangerous working conditions. A month later, the predominantly Hispanic workforce voted by a 112-71 margin to join Local 789. But the vote proved to be merely a prelude to months of bitter fighting between the company and the union. It ultimately took two years to negotiate a five-year contract, which expired in June.

Negotiations on a new labor pact have gone nowhere. The company initially offered an annual 10-cent-per-hour raise, along with an additional 10-cent bump in the bonus employees receive if they don't miss any work time during a given week. Local 789 is seeking a 60-cent annual increase in wages across the board.

Any potential for progress was derailed by the decertification campaign. UFCW officials argue that the attempt to oust the union is being driven by company brass and that it's retaliation for their successful effort to pass a packinghouse workers' bill of rights during the last state legislative session. That legislation set up a state ombudsman to monitor working conditions at the state's meat-processing plants.

During the legislative debate, UFCW members testified about the dangers that slaughterhouse employees face on a daily basis, including the grisly tale of a Dakota Premium kill-floor worker who was accidentally shot in the knee with a stun gun. They also informed legislators that in February the South St. Paul slaughterhouse had been tagged with five serious safety violations by inspectors from the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry, for which the slaughterhouse was fined $6,300.

UFCW officials charge that the company immediately retaliated by banning union representatives from the plant, harassing pro-union workers, and launching the decertification drive. They've filed a litany of complaints with the National Labor Review Board alleging labor law violations. In September, the federal agency ruled in Local 789's favor on three of the counts, concluding that company officials improperly removed pro-union materials from the break room and wrongly disciplined a worker for union activities. "The employer has been in open-warfare mode ever since the testimony on the packinghouse workers' bill of rights," says Doug Mork, organizing director for Local 789.

Union officials also argue that Dakota Premium is exploiting anxieties within the Latino community that have been prompted by recent immigration raids at large meat-processing facilities in Worthington and Willmar. "There's no question that workers are fearful," says Mork. "These are viewed as high-profile locations where there have been large pools of undocumented workers."

Consequently, the ethnic mix at the plant has changed substantially in recent months. Where the workforce was once nearly uniformly Hispanic, union officials now estimate that one-third of the employees are non-Latino. They also report that the company is increasingly relying on workers who have recently been released from prison and are on probation or living in halfway-house facilities. "It's the downside to enforcement-only immigration policies," says Local 789 president Don Seaquest. "If the immigrant workforce is drying up, there isn't anybody to do those jobs."

It's difficult to gauge the company's view of the labor dispute. Plant manager Steve Cortinas did not return calls seeking comment. Dominic Driano, the company's attorney, also did not respond to inquiries.

Carlos Samaniego has worked at Dakota Premium for roughly six months de-boning brisket. In that time, two co-workers were accidentally stabbed on the job by boning knives, he says, adding that union representation is necessary to protect workers' safety. "The ones who actually control the speed of the line and are breaking our backs and limbs are the bosses," says Samaniego, standing outside the plant's gates following a nine-hour shift. "The union is the only way we are going to be able to defend ourselves against the speed of the line."

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