One of America’s finest union leaders and her supporters are now under assault by one of the nation’s meanest, toughest corporations. For years Maria Martinez, head of Teamsters Local 556 in Walla Walla, Washington, has been battling IBP, the meatpacking giant now owned by Tyson Foods. In 1999 Martinez helped launch a wildcat strike at IBP’s beef slaughterhouse in Wallula, Washington, protesting safety hazards and excessive line speeds. In 2001 she helped workers there win a lawsuit against IBP for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, gaining as much as $7.3 million in back wages that the company still refuses to pay. She has fought not only for higher wages and better working conditions but also for food safety and animal welfare. With support from Teamsters for a Democratic Union (the progressive, reform-minded wing of the Teamsters), Martinez energized Local 556, reaching out to immigrant workers and linking them with college students, consumer activists and animal rights groups. In response, Tyson Foods has worked hard to get her kicked out of the plant, at one point prohibiting her from even setting foot on the premises. The type of immigrant/activist coalition that Martinez has built is crucial to the future success of the US labor movement–and that is one of the reasons Tyson is so eager to crush it.
A generation ago, meatpacking workers earned some of the highest wages of any industrial workers in the United States. Working in a slaughterhouse was a hard, dirty job, but it provided a stable middle-class income. Today meatpacking is one of the lowest-paid industrial jobs, with one of the highest turnover rates. It is also the nation’s most dangerous job, measured by the rate of serious injury. During the 1970s IBP was largely responsible for changing the industry’s labor policies, breaking unions, slashing wages and recruiting an immigrant work force. In a very tough business, IBP gained the reputation of being by far the toughest. In 1974 IBP was convicted for collaborating with organized-crime figures in New York City to bribe meat wholesalers and union leaders. Any meatpacking company that hoped to compete with IBP had to cut wages and benefits, too. Over the past twenty-five years some wages in the meatpacking industry, adjusted for inflation, have declined by more than 50 percent.
When Tyson Foods bought IBP in 2001, many workers feared that the company would try to make wages in the beef industry similar to those in the poultry industry, where the pay is even lower. Those fears now seem to be justified. Tyson Foods is the largest meatpacking company the world has ever seen, supplying supermarkets and fast-food chains with beef, chicken and pork. The company’s size and scale give it a tremendous advantage when trying to break a local union. In February 2003 members of the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Tyson plant in Jefferson, Wisconsin, went on strike to prevent cutbacks in wages, benefits and vacation time. Tyson promptly hired replacement workers and kept the plant running. After eleven months on the picket line, UFCW members voted to end the strike–but Tyson wouldn’t rehire most of them. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that the scabs can be considered permanent replacements, paving the way for Tyson to get the UFCW out of the plant completely. Workers at the Tyson plant in Cherokee, Iowa, now face similar demands for wage and benefit cuts. At a Tyson slaughterhouse in Brooks, Canada, sixty “team members” (Tyson’s term for its employees) were recently fired after a protest against poor working conditions. The plant has no union, and “team members” are expected to work six days a week.
The turnover rate at the Tyson slaughterhouse in Wallula is high, and about 90 percent of the workers are immigrants, mainly from Latin America and Bosnia, who do not speak English. It isn’t easy to maintain union solidarity among such a work force. In April Martinez narrowly defeated an attempt, sponsored by Tyson, to decertify her union in advance of contract negotiations. Local 556’s contract expired on May 31. Workers are still employed under the terms of the old contract, but Tyson has stopped deducting union dues from their paychecks. Among other things, Martinez is demanding a safer workplace, a slower line speed, and much more careful handling of cattle, so that none are dismembered while still alive. Local 556 has also forged ties with consumer groups in Mexico, Korea and Japan, demanding that Tyson test all of its cattle for mad cow disease. The worldwide ban on American beef, imposed in December after the discovery of a heifer with mad cow disease in Washington State, threatens the livelihood of workers at the Tyson plant in Wallula, which used to ship as much as 40 percent of its meat to Asia.
Although mad cow disease has reduced Tyson’s overseas sales, the company is hardly on the verge of bankruptcy. Tyson Foods’ second-quarter revenue in 2004 was up 6.9 percent from the previous year, while profits increased by more than 65 percent. Some executive compensation has gone up as well. In 2003 the company chairman, John Tyson, was paid $20.9 million. At a time when the company was demanding wage and benefit cuts from impoverished meatpacking workers, John Tyson’s annual compensation nearly tripled. His corporate perks attracted the attention of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which has launched a formal investigation. During an interview with Deborah Norville on May 26, Tyson outlined his personal theory of labor management. “One must have a moral compassion or a moral anchor,” Tyson said. “You have to serve the people that work for you…and in effect become a servant to the people that work for you.” He said it with a straight face.