News & Politics

Forced to Work on a Broken Ankle? Workers Defy Abusive Supervisors for Big Union Win

A firsthand look at the backbreaking conditions that led Pilgrim's Pride employees to fight back--and win.

Photo Credit: RWDSU

In December of 2004, while working at a massive poultry plant in Alabama, Delores Smith slipped on the greasy floor and collapsed into a heap. In considerable pain, she limped over to the nurse’s office. The company nurse, however, didn’t even bother to look at the injury, instead sending Smith home with ibuprofen. When she got to her car, Smith looked down and noticed that pieces of bone were poking out through her sock. She had broken her ankle in three places.

That episode stirred Smith to help lead an organizing drive, with support from the United Food and Commercial Workers. Elections at the plant, located in the small town of Russellville, were held in 2006. (At the time the plant was owned by Gold Kist; it was later purchased by Pilgrim’s Pride.) “They don’t respect us at all,” Smith told the New York Times prior to the election. “That’s why I’m praying for a union.”

The union, however, was easily defeated: 844 workers voted against joining, with only 486 in support. But after years of struggle, last month the prayer for a union was finally answered, when more than 70 percent of the plant workforce voted to unionize. It was the largest victory for organized labor in Alabama in a decade, and a closer look at the two campaigns—the 2006 defeat and the 2012 success—has much to teach about both the challenges and opportunities the labor movement faces.

I worked at the plant during the summer of 2008, and spoke to a number of people about the 2006 campaign. Many of the men and women I met initially supported the union, and even in a union-unfriendly state like Alabama there was some cause for optimism. Workers had a long list of grievances—abusive supervisors, poverty wages, negligent on-site medical care, and, especially, the oppressive line speed. Then, as now, the poultry workers at the plant were responsible for killing and processing nearly 1.5 million chickens a week, a burden that makes pain a constant companion. In fact, Pilgrim’s Pride admitted as much. “It’s fast and it’s hard and your hands are gonna swell and ache,” I was told during orientation. An entire wall in the break room was lined with pain killer dispensers.

On the debone line, which was staffed primarily by Latino immigrants, men and women cut up tens of thousands of chicken carcasses whizzing by on cones. I was stationed nearby, responsible for either dumping tubs of chicken meat or tearing breasts apart by hand. During a shift spent dumping tubs, I would lift, carry, and empty more than thirty tons. When separating breasts, I was responsible for tearing through about 7200 every eight hours. For such superhuman feats, most employees earned between $8 and $9 an hour.

But if workers had plenty of grievances and pent up anger, the union underestimated the opposition and failed to identify leaders, especially among Spanish speakers. Gold Kist launched a vigorous counter-offensive, holding a number of captive audience meetings and bringing in bilingual company reps from out of state. (The workforce was roughly divided equally among Latino, white, and black employees.) Immigrant workers were reportedly promised $2-an-hour wage increases if the union lost. Others were told that, as a reward for keeping the union out, the line speed would be decreased.

But what really hampered the drive, I came to believe, was the union’s failure to build bridges between Spanish- and English-speaking workers. When I lived in Russellville, my neighbor was a Guatemalan named Dagoberto who had organized, in one day, a 500-person march through town in support of immigrant rights. This was the kind of leader—unafraid and widely respected—that an organizer would kill for. But Dagoberto had voted against the union in 2006. “To be honest, I didn’t really know what a union was,” he told me. “I never even saw anyone from the union.” I would speak with dozens of immigrants who expressed similar sentiments.

Without the support of many Latinos, and with anti-union rumors going unchallenged, management scored a decisive victory. After the vote, Gold Kist passed out Krispy Kreme donuts to thank the workers. Then it sped up the line speed. Raises never materialized.

“That’s what we got for voting the union down: a single fucking donut,” remembered Kyle, who worked alongside me at the plant. Kyle originally supported the union but was eventually convinced to vote no. “I’ll admit when I’m wrong—they suckered my ass.”

TWO YEARS PASSED. Pilgrim’s Pride, which had bought out Gold Kist, filed for bankruptcy and was purchased by JBS, a Brazilian-owned meat and poultry giant. (The name of the company was retained.) Then, in September 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the Russellville plant and issued $135,500 in penalties for safety hazards, finding that workers were exposed to “acid burns and electrical shock.”

At about the same time, Randy Handley, an organizer with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, began receiving calls from upset plant employees. Familiar with the previous attempts by the UFCW, Handley proceeded cautiously. (The RWDSU is a division within the UFCW, but hadn’t been involved in the previous campaign.)

“Organizing a union in a shop is like growing a garden,” Handley tells me. “Fertilize and sooner or later it starts growing.” After two years of cataloguing complaints, building relationships, and developing a leadership group, a group came together over breakfast this past spring and decided to go public.

The first meet-up was to be a small, early morning affair in the parking lot of a gas station. Handley expected a handful of people; more than 50 turned out. Dozens more came back after the day shift, fired up. “Folks kept showing up, handing over union cards and driving away,” he says. Soon, four out of five workers at the plant had signed union cards.

But names on cards can represent a false sense of strength: too often, as occurred in the 2006 campaign, people retreat in the face of company opposition. This time, Handley and his organizing team, which included Jose Aguilar, an immigrant from Honduras, were quick to build bridges within the diverse workforce. Organizers took care to hold bilingual meetings and translate all documents, and set up shop at intersections around the plant. “We wanted to make sure that workers knew they could find us at all hours and ask anything they wanted,” he says. (Management tried, unsuccessfully, to enlist the Sheriff's department to evict them.)

“This time, we made sure that the Latinos understood what a union is all about,” says Aguilar. “I told them, the union is you. You’ll fight and negotiate for a contract that will protect you.” They were quick to counter management claims that the plant would close or workers be fired if the union came in. And anyways, many of the workers that had been through the 2006 election had already heard the same threats. (Alternet asked Pilgrim’s Pride about worker allegations that management issued such threats, but the company didn’t respond.)

“Bosses always say the same old bullcrap,” states Christy Ray, who works nights in the chicken breast department. “They say they’re gonna close the plant down. They say that we should work it out amongst ourselves. But when I go into the office and tell them about something that isn’t right, they pat me on the back and do nothing. They treat us like dirt.”

Sensing that the situation called for more than donuts, Pilgrim’s Pride ordered up 2,000 “Vote No” T-shirts. But the last-ditch effort had little effect: in June, workers voted 706-292 for the union.

Ray remembers a time, not too long ago, when a supervisor dressed her down in front of her coworkers. “I turned to her and shouted, ‘I am not a dog. Don’t you ever yell at me like that.’ You could hear a pin drop, the place got so quiet.”

Now, Ray says, supervisors aren’t yelling anymore. “It wasn’t about the money,” she tells me, explaining why she voted for the union. “I honestly don’t care if I get a raise. And it’s not about what a union can do for me. It’s very simple—I want a voice, and now I have one.”

 

Gabriel Thompson is the author of three books: Working in the Shadows, There’s No José Here, and Calling All Radicals. He has written for The Nation, New York magazine, The New York Times, and other publications. Thompson is the recipient of the Richard J. Margolis Award, the Studs Terkel Media Award, and a collective Sidney Hillman Award.