Meatpacker Unionism Gutted

Against the Current, No 6, January/February 1987

Roger Horowitz

IN THE SPRING of 1986, when the AFL-CIO, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the courts and the Hormel Company were moving in on Local P-9, the workers decided to create a lasting symbol of their struggle. With the guidance of several artists, P-9ers painted an enormous mural on the side of the Austin Labor Center and. dedicated it to Nelson Mandela. The collection of images was designed to express the hope of the P-9 members that their struggle would ignite trade union militancy and embolden working people to mobilize in defense of their living standards.

The mural conveys a labor movement transformed. On the far left side is a group of faceless workers marching into a factory or furnace, overshadowed by a picture of a person behind bars. In contrast with this misery, on the far right is a demonstration of workers and farmers carrying banners and signs reading “International Labor Solidarity Abolish Apartheid Now” and “All for One and One For All.”

At the center of the mural is its dominant image, a huge snake depicting corporate greed, coiled around a factory which bears a striking resemblance to the Austin Hormel plant. Poised over the snake is a woman with a cleaver ready to strike down on its neck, while a male worker holds a torch high and looks forward into the better future ahead.

Soon after UFCW-appointed trustees took over the union’s offices and officially ended the strike, they rented sand blasting equipment and tried to obliterate the mural, as they had tried to end the P-9 struggle. But the paint proved stronger than the brick and mortar of the Austin Labor Center, and all they have managed to do is scar the mural and seriously damage the wall.

In the same way, the official end to the P-9 strike has not brought an end to the struggle of the Hormel packinghouse workers and the thousands of rank and file unionists who rallied to their cause. It also illustrates how the UFCW, far from leading packinghouse workers and other union members to rebuff concessions, would like to eradicate the rank and file spirit and hope which brought the P-9 struggle into being.

The UFCW and its supporters have defended the inter­ national’s actions in the Hormel Strike as a regrettable necessity to save industrial unionism in the meatpacking industry. P-9, they have charged, violated principles of working class solidarity by “going it alone” in its struggle with Hormel. In a document widely circulated by the UFCW, National Lawyers Guild member Lance Compa criticized P-9’s determined fight on the basis that “Any local’s strike or other battle against concessions must take into account the higher imperative of saving industrial unionism.

In fact, there is no true industrial unionism for packinghouse workers within the UFCW. In ways detailed below, the very structure of that organization has isolated packinghouse workers from one another and inhibited efforts to resist concessions.

Local P-9, with its outreach to workers in the packinghouses and other industries, started to rebuild those tangible bonds of solidarity between workers which was • the actual source of strength for the original CIO. Far from a threat to industrial unionism, P-9 pointed the way towards a new labor movement which would practice solidarity and union democracy, and rely on rank-and­ file participation for its strength.

The Austin Hormel Agreement

The September 1 agreement between the George A. Hormel Company and the United Food and Commercial Workers union in Austin, Minnesota is an enormous setback for unionism in the meat packing industry. Negotiated by UFCW-appointed trustees of Local P-9 after the international had placed the local in receivership and suspended elected union officers, the contract surrendered many hard-won gains of the past fifty years. Some 850 P-9 members may never work in the Hormel plant again, and their already difficult situation now is desperate.

In essence, the agreement is identical to the terms demanded by Hormel when P-9 struck in August 1985. It eliminates two key contractual prov1s10ns which have been in the Austin agreements since 1940-a guaranteed annual wage, and a 52-week notice prior to any layoffs. In addition, the UFCW gave up plant seniority, leaving only departmental seniority. Together, these provisions would allow the company to eliminate experienced workers in favor of new hires and gut the seniority system entirely. A wage increase to $10.70 after three years-to the level negotiated in 1979-hardly compensated for the enormous givebacks in contractual language.

By themselves, these concessions eliminated essential accomplishments of the unionists who organized the Austin plant in the 1930s; but there is more. As a condition of employment, workers must now consent to what has been termed a “Ray Rogers” clause. It prohibits employees from distributing leaflets, displaying banners, or organizing boycotts against Hormel or “related” companies-presumably firms such as Corporate Campaign target First Bank Systems, Inc.

Moreover, the contract contains no language requiring the Hormel Company to rehire any of the 850 P-9 members still out of work. Coverage in various publications that the company had agreed to a “preferential” rehiring of strikers is inaccurate.

Company president Richard Knowlton has reportedly made a verbal commitment to rehire those P-9 members who sent letters to the company asking for work after the UFCW took over the local and called off the strike. This applies to little over 50 workers; the rest have little hope of getting back in the plant. Hormel also has refused to pay unemployment benefits for the 800 workers, which expresses their position that those P-9 members are no longer employees of the company.

Aside from the specific provisions of the Austin Hormel contract, the UFCW missed an unusual opportunity on September 1, 1986, to bring the Hormel Company to its knees. For unknown reasons, the international chose not to strike when virtually all of the individual agreements between UFCW local unions and various Hormel plants expired on that date.

With the Austin facility already operating at a low level of production, the UFCW had a chance to insist on superior terms in all Hormel contracts through a strike which would have paralyzed the company. As the UFCW negotiated a four year agreement in Austin and three year contracts at the other Hormel plant, it is unclear when the union will have a similar opportunity.

Instead, the UFCW relied on negotiations in the Madison, Oscar Mayer plant to establish a pattern of wage increases to $10.70 over three years, which was then applied through the rest of Oscar Mayer and in most of Hormel’s packinghouses. Although these other contracts have no actual concessions, they also contain no advances to deal with the problems which local unions will face in the next few years.

In the Oscar Mayer agreements, for example, workers do not have the right to transfer to another company operation if their plant closes. In the event an outside firm buys an Oscar Mayer plant, the union contract will no longer be in effect and the workers can be discharged regardless of seniority. As these are the two major problems faced by packinghouse unionists, the modest wage increase is not much of a victory.

Indeed, the major impact of the wage increase was to persuade packinghouse workers to approve the contracts. At a time when non-union packinghouses are paying around $7.50 an hour, wages over $10 represent good pay for this work. In Austin, a minority of the P-9 members still out of work voted for the contract on that basis, especially as a better agreement from the UFCW did not seem possible. A majority of the workers in the plant voted for the agreement, g1vmg the UFCW-negotiated contract a majority of 1060 to 440.

The UFCW has defended the Austin contract as the best possible agreement under difficult conditions, and argued that the wage increases in it and other fall contracts have stopped the concessionary spiral in the meat packing industry. However, there has at best been a lull in the efforts of packing companies to gut existing collective bargaining agreements and relegate unions to a shrinking and secondary part of the industry.

Meatpacking firms showed their approval of the Hormel Co.’s conduct in the P-9 strike by electing company chairman Richard Knowlton president of the American Meat Institute in September. The companies in the meat industry have already succeeded in breaking unions at several firms and reducing benefits at others; in the aftermath of the P-9 settlement, their efforts to de­ unionize the industry are going to continue.

Transformation of the Meatpacking Industry

The roots of the current crisis of packinghouse unionism are in the dramatic changes in the industry that began in the late 1950s. For over sixty years, the “big four” firms of Armour, Cudahy, Swift and Wilson had dominated the meat industry with their huge multi­ product plants in large urban centers such as Chicago and Kansas City.

In the early 1960s, aggressive companies such as Iowa Beef Processors (now IBP) utilized new methods of transportation and production to challenge the hold of the old companies. IBP was able to undercut the “big four” by building smaller specialized facilities far out in the countryside, and relying on the highway system rather than railroads to distribute its product.

The entrance of IBP and other new firms transformed the organization of the industry. Gone are the integrated meat companies who handled all ends of the business. Firms often owned by large conglomerates now concentrate on either slaughtering or processing, with a few firms dominating each part. IBP and Excell control beef slaughtering, and IBP’s efforts to move into pork slaughtering since 1980 has greatly contributed to the pressure on packinghouse wages.

In 1985, 8 % of the industry’s plants killed 92 % of all hogs. Other large firms such as Swift Independent, Hormel, Oscar Mayer and John Morrell have been closing their killing operations and concentrating on meat processing.

As a result of these changes, a different kind of packinghouse is typical of the industry. Rather than plants which employed thousands of workers to kill and process hogs, cattle and sheep, the new packinghouses concentrate on one type of animal and tend to either slaughter or process-not both.

In 1984, the average slaughterhouse had 500 workers, and a typical processing facility employed only 100. These new plants also tend to be located in the countryside and draw on a workforce without prior union experience. Between 1963 and 1984, the proportion of slaughtering facilities in metropolitan areas of the middle-west fell from 70 % to 30%, and for processing facilities the shift was from 75% to 33%.

Changes in Packinghouse Unionism

Packinghouse unions have been devastated by the transformation of the industry, and have struggled to retain their influence as plant closings wiped out former urban strongholds. What was once thought of as a well-paid dirty job is now just a dirty job. For decades, wages in meatpacking were 25 % above pay in other non-durable industries; they have now fallen below the average for non-durables. Between 1979 and 1984, the number of packinghouse workers in the UFCW dropped from approximately 117,000 to 88,000, less than two-thirds of the total work-force in the industry.•

The first casualty of these changes was the United Packinghouse Workers of America (UPWA). Founded as the CIO-affiliated Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee in 1937, the UPWA succeeded in organizing an industry which had defeated prior union drives in 1904 and 1918-1922. To overcome employer resistance and intimidation, UPWA organizers utilized militant rank-and­ file organization to win packinghouse workers to the union. Routinely employing job actions in key departments as well as plant-wide stoppages, the UPWA organized the “big four” firms as well as many secondary companies by the end of World War II.

Strongly entrenched in the industry, the UPWA was able to raise wages and increase benefits substantially through master agreements negotiated by the “chain” of local unions in the plants of the “big four” companies. Benefits now enjoyed by packinghouse workers were first secured in UPWA master agreements, such as seniority, pensions, a weekly hourly guarantee, vacations, and medical insurance. The agreed-upon contract was a common document signed by the international union and local union representatives, often complemented by supplementary agreements on a plant level to deal with local problems.

In addition to securing good contracts, the regular “chain” meetings created solidarity between local unions that extended beyond the negotiating process. Workers from different plants in the same company got to know each other and their problems, and thus could offer support in conflicts with management without going through the international office in Chicago.

At the heart of the UPWA’s success was its ability to combine centralized industrial unionism with union democracy at the local and national level. Elected representatives of plant based local unions participated in formulating contractual objectives and securing them through negotiations if possible and industrial action if necessary. UPWA negotiating committees included representatives from each local union, and brought bet­ ween 40 and 100 production workers in meetings with the companies.

In the event of problems during negotiations, the UPWA was willing to orchestrate “spontaneous” work stoppages of short duration in a company’s plants, or shut down the industry as a last resort. Though by no means a perfect organization, the UPWA was able to preserve the best aspects of the militant industrial unionism of the 1930s.

The master agreements were also an enormous asset in organizing other workers. The UPWA was able to point to standardized wages and benefits at plants in the meat-packing industry, and guarantee to workers that if they joined the UPWA, they would receive the same. And unlike other industrial unions, the master agreements did not extinguish the autonomy of local unions. For example, the UPWA never signed a contract which contained a clause prohibiting stoppages during the term of the agreement.

When packing plants started to close in the 1950s, the UPWA tried to minimize the impact on the union by securing company-wide seniority in the master agreements, as well as several other important contractual provisions. The companies agreed to give six months’ notice before closing a department or plant, and to offer severance pay, job retraining or transfer to another facility for workers affected by it. While these provisions did not stop plant closings, they imposed a price on a packing company wishing to do so.

By the mid-1960s, the UPWA had been gravely weakened by the closings of packing plants in its old urban strongholds. In 1968, it merged with the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, an old AFL union. The Amalgamated represented a few packing plants operated by Swift and Oscar Mayer, but most of its 500,000 members were skilled butchers who worked in retail stores. Unlike the UPWA, it was primarily a craft union used to dealing with local businesses, and not national companies engaged in national and international trade.

The merger with the Amalgamated began to dilute the democratic and militant industrial unionism of the UPWA. Soon after the merger, the Amalgamated accepted no-strike clauses in its contracts and pressured local unions to rely on local business agents to settle problems with management. It eliminated the Wage Rate department of the UPWA, which had compiled information on wages for jobs in different plants and helped local unions enforce standard rates among all the packing plants.

The impact on packinghouse unionism was minimized by the formation of a Packinghouse Division inside the Amalgamated, heavily staffed by former UPWA officials. Its director, Jesse Prosten, was a long-time leader of the UPWA who began his career as an organizer of packinghouse workers in Boston in the 1930s. Although Prosten and the various field representatives were appointed by the Amalgamated executive board, they were backed up by chains of packinghouse local unions which remained largely intact and internally democratic. As a result, the master agreements remained in place during the 1970s and wages and benefits retained their pre-merger levels.

The Formation of the UFCW

In 1979, the Amalgamated merged with the 800,000 member Retail Clerks International Union (RCIU) to form the UFCW. The RCIU was another former AFL union which shared the business agent structure of the Amalgamated, with thousands of workers at unrelated occupations belonging to the same local union. RCIU leaders dominated the executive board of the UFCW and, with the old Amalgamated officials, dwarfed the old UPWA-CIO unionists.

The formation of the UFCW coincided with accelerated change in the business side of the meatpacking industry. In that respect, the UFCW is not responsible for the extreme pressures for concessions in the packinghouse contracts. However, the structure of the UFCW, the inexperience of its leaders with the meatpacking in particular and mass production industry in general, and its resistance to militant unionism has prevented the UFCW from adequately responding to the problems faced by packinghouse workers.

In his criticism of P-9, “A Second Look at the Hormel Strike,” Lance Compa argued that the UFCW represented industrial unionism in the meatpacking industry and the continuity of practices originated by the UPWA. He contended, “Within the UFCW workers in Hormel and the other packing plants shape their own bargaining program and policies through a national packing committee, consisting not of Washington union bureaucrats but of delegates from local unions throughout the industry.”

In fact, the UFCW has enveloped the democratic and militant industrial unionism of the UPWA-CIO in the stifling folds of bureaucratic practices inherited from the AFL. The UFCW packinghouse division does not serve as a vehicle for packinghouse workers to express their opinions or organize for their demands. It may have the form of industrial unionism, but not the content. The UFCW also has presided over the virtual elimination of master agreements from the meatpacking industry.

The UFCW policy of merging plant-based locals from the UPWA with former RCIU or Amalgamated locals has severed the links between packinghouse workers and eliminated the possibility for true industrial unionism within the international. Though officially neutral, the UFCW has effectively pressured packinghouse workers to join large unions by discontinuing the CIO practice–used by the UPWA-of assisting their local organizations with field representatives stationed in particular areas. In order to provide services to its membership, the UFCW has followed the traditional AFL method of relying on business agents employed by local unions.

In most cases, workers in meatpacking facilities of less than 1,000 have been forced to join these large UFCW locals in the absence of other alternatives. These mergers have placed a few hundred packinghouse workers in a union with thousands of retail clerks and controlled by officials who, at their best, have little familiarity with the conditions and problems inside a packinghouse.

Consequently, most packinghouse workers are now represented at international conventions, chain meetings and packinghouse division conferences by union leaders who are not from the packing plants. Local 431, for ex­ ample, covers most of Iowa and includes workers from over 100 separate companies, including Hormel, Oscar Mayer and several smaller packing plants. It is the leaders of Local 431 who represent these packinghouse workers at “chain” conferences, not delegates from their plants.

The process of isolating meatpacking unionists from one another by burying them in large locals has undermined solidarity among workers who labor for the same company and has encouraged the fragmentation of packinghouse contracts into a series of widely varying local agreements.

Workers in Oscar Mayer and Hormel plants say that before the P-9 strike, they had no contact with workers at other plants or awareness of their problems. Indeed, a great deal of jealousy and suspicion seemed to have existed between local unions in the same chain.

These problems have rendered the packinghouse division a committee at the level at the international union without a corresponding structure on the local or regional level. The “chains” of packinghouse locals are a shadow of their former selves as they neither share a common master agreement nor truly represent packinghouse workers.

In addition to the problems with the local unions, UFCW regional directors are appointed by UFCW president William Wynn, preside over huge areas, and are only marginally interested in the packinghouse workers who are a tiny minority in their jurisdiction. The so-called packinghouse division of the UFCW thus has little direct contact with the packinghouse workers in the union.

Deprived of an organized connection with his constituency, packinghouse Director Lewie Anderson must rely on UFCW regional officials or local union officers to implement the decisions of his division. In practice, Anderson must secure the support of the UFCW executive board before he can obtain the cooperation from union officials further down the chain of command. This has rendered the packinghouse division an arm of the UFCW leadership, and not a vehicle for packinghouse workers to “shape their own bargaining program and practices” as Compa contends.

Hamstrung by this structure, packinghouse workers have been unable to prevent the companies from breaking the decades-old master agreements and eliminating unions from their plants. The first blow fell in 1982 when Wilson & Co, declared bankruptcy, unilaterally abrogated the master agreement and reduced wages. One year later, Greyhound closed its Armour plants on December 17 and sold them to ConAgra. On December 19, Con-Agra re-opened the plants without recognizing the master agreement and unilaterally reduced wages and benefits.

Unnoticed during the Hormel strike, in 1985 the UFCW was driven out of most of the remaining Swift Independent plants. Since 1982, the Swift master agreement had covered only three of the thirteen plants represented by the union. In early 1985, Swift closed the three plants still covered by the master agreement and allowed it to expire. In November, Texas investor Edwin L. Cox purchased the remaining Swift facilities and closed them. The union contracts will not be in effect when and if he reopens the plants.

Master agreements now are not a factor in setting wages, benefits or working conditions in the meatpacking industry. Significantly, a single plant agreement in 1986 set the pattern for wage increases in the industry, but did not produce standardization in benefits or termination dates. The recent Hormel agreements were signed separately by local unions with the company. The workers at FOL, which is controlled by Hormel, are paid $1.50 less an hour than in the company’s other plants and struck in an effort to establish a common wage.

The willingness of the UFCW to accept local contracts in place of a master agreement has allowed the companies to play one local against the other, and has hindered a common strike against one firm.

Separate plant-by-plant agreements also have pre­ vented the union from securing contractual clauses inhibiting plant closings, such as inter-plant transfers and company-wide seniority. These provisions, won by the UPWA in the 1950s, are now almost absent from UFCW­ negotiated agreements. Hence, the UFCW’s “anti-concessionary” policy is devoid of positive alternatives for packinghouse workers threatened with plant closings.

Looking Ahead

A veteran packinghouse unionist with whom I spoke in Omaha had many criticisms of the P-9 strike-its timing, its strategy, etc. But the bottom line for him was that the UFCW should have sought to unite with the Hormel unionists and use their determination and aggressiveness as the opening wedge of an attack on the packing companies, instead of repressing their struggle. Devoid of a strategy itself, the UFCW could have tried to collaborate with Local P-9, to work through the many problems that existed, instead of assisting Hormel in breaking the strike and leaving 850 workers out in the cold.

This is the largest of the missed opportunities of the P-9 struggle. A new mature generation of union-minded workers represented by people like P-9 president Jim Guyette rallied to support the Hormel strike. Raised in union households and brought up at a standard of living made possible by union-scale wages, these workers are the future of a labor movement gone stale and flat. They are schooled in essential union truths such as respecting picket lines and supporting workers in other plants and industries. Their ideologue is Bruce Springsteen and their motto the refrain from his song which was sewn on P-9 union jackets: “No Retreat, No Surrender.”

There is not much of a future for unions in the meatpacking industry unless the kind of energy ignited in the P-9 strike can be directed towards organizing the growing unorganized section of the industry. As long as IBP remains a predominantly non-union company, the UFCW will be unable to stabilize wages or protect its remaining packinghouse membership.

Unfortunately, the UFCW has not shown an ability to win packinghouse workers to unionism, or to unite with militant and impetuous struggles like P-9 when they occur. The North American Meat Packers Union, primarily composed of discharged Hormel workers, has the desire, but as yet neither the numbers nor resources to organize the meatpacking industry.

Despite the setback in Austin, the spirit which the strike created remains, much as the images of the mural have survived the sand blasting of the UFCW. Midwest packinghouse workers and other P-9 supporters came together in demonstrations, slept on each other’s floors, exchanged addresses, thoughts and ideas, and started to create that rank and file network which must precede a re-birth of the union movement.

The P-9 members out of work still need financial assistance, and they are receiving some, though not as much as before. As a group of workers who were struggling for us all, we should return the favor in their moment of greatest need. Send contributions to: NAMPU, 711 Fourth Avenue NE, Austin, MN 55912.

*Figures for above three paragraphs drawn from Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, Industry Wage Survey: Meat Products, May 1979 and Industry Wage Survey: Meat Products, June 1984. See also, Wall Street Journal, December 7, 1983, 3; June 11, 1985, 50 and December 2, 1985, 3.

January-February 1987, ATC 6

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