Forced to Work on a Broken Ankle? Workers Defy Abusive Supervisors for Big Union Win
Photo Credit: RWDSU
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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.