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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.

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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.

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