The Battle of Iowa Beef: IBP Teamsters Lose a Strike But Build a Union

Against the Current, No. 84, January/February 2000

Henry Phillips

ON JUNE 4, 1300 Teamster meatpackers shut down the Iowa Beef Processors (IBP) plant in Wallula, Washington in the largest wildcat strike in the United States in decades. Fed up with low wages and unsafe working conditions, immigrant workers from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Laos and Bosnia united against the world’s largest processor of meat and pork products.

As strike leader Maria Martinez told the New York Times, “Enough is enough is something that you can understand in any language.”

Five weeks later, strikers returned to work after their strike was broken by the combined efforts of the company and Old Guard Teamster officials. The following week, Teamsters General President James Hoffa imposed a trusteeship on Teamsters Local 556 to prevent reform activists from being swept into office in the local union election scheduled for the fall.

A look behind the scenes at this summer’s dramatic confrontation and sellout at IBP illustrates Teamsters for a Democratic Union’s (TDU) rank-and-file perspective in action, and shows how local rank-and-file struggles mutually interact with the broader struggle for reform in the Teamsters Union.

The Background: Local Democracy

This summer’s wildcat at IBP was far from spontaneous. Reform activists there have been organizing for two years, beginning with a petition campaign to demand the removal of the plant’s do-nothing chief shop steward. Half the workforce signed that petition; but the Local 556 Secretary-Treasurer John Carter brushed it aside, exercising his singular authority under the local union bylaws to determine the appointment of all shop stewards.

IBP activists contacted TDU and held a meeting and workshop with a TDU organizer. Working with TDU, they launched a campaign to reform their local union bylaws.

For years, Local 556 rarely, if ever, conducted general membership meetings because not enough members attended to make quorum—if any members attended at all. But in spring, 1998 hundreds of IBP Teamsters packed the union hall to overflow capacity and voted unanimously to give members the right to elect all shop stewards.

Maria Martinez won the subsequent chief shop steward election, defeating the incumbent (a trustee on the local executive board) by a 547 to 84 margin. In the ensuing months, the rank-and-file movement moved from victory to victory at the plant, electing ten other new shop stewards, filing a class action lawsuit against IBP for unpaid wages, and waging a variety of shop floor fights over health and safety issues and contractual violations.

The key to the movement’s organizing successes was activists’ member-to-member network. Activist leaders recruited three volunteers from each of the plant’s dozen or so production lines to get information out to the workers on their line, gather opinions from them, and mobilize them to wear stickers, sign petitions, vote in shop steward elections, attend local meetings, and so on.

A committee of leaders from each department coordinated the network’s activities. During this summer’s five-week strike, this committee and volunteer network formed the core of an extensive rank-and-file strike leadership.

After years of membership demobilization by Old Guard local officers, the network-driven rank-and-file organizing of the last two years was critical to developing activist leaders, familiarizing members with participating in rank-and-file actions, and laying the groundwork for the strike.

Getting Ready to Negotiate

Past Teamster contracts at IBP were negotiated behind the backs of the membership. A year before contract expiration, management would meet with local union officials to negotiate a wage increase in exchange for a contract extension.

In 1995, members voted to accept a contract extension with a eighty cent wage increase in the first year. It was only after they received copies of their contract months later that most workers realized that they had agreed to a four-year extension with wage increases of just fifteen cents in the third year and ten cents in the fourth year.

By keeping members in the dark and front-loading agreements, IBP management and Local 556 officials avoided the whole messy process of dealing with workers’ demands for substantial increases or changes in contract language to protect workers’ rights on the job.

Activists were determined that things would be different in the 1999 negotiations. When the company sought to bargain a contract extension six months before the contracts’ expiration, the TDU network launched a petition campaign to demand “No negotiations, without preparations.”

More than half the plant signed the petition calling on the union to conduct a bargaining survey to determine what members wanted in the contract, and to organize a contract campaign to mobilize members around these demands. Knowing that any contract extension was doomed to be voted down, Local 556 officials turned down the company’s request to bargain early.

When the local failed to take any action to prepare members for the upcoming negotiations, activists launched a contract campaign of their own. They wrote a three-page bargaining survey and conducted one-on-one interviews during meal breaks, getting more than 600 workers to complete the surveys.

Volunteers tabulated the survey results from which the committee generated four contract campaign themes: better wages and benefits, treatment with respect and dignity, a safe workplace, and a sanitary workplace. These themes were chosen to reflect workers’ key issues as well as issues likely to arouse public sympathy and support.

A Dangerous Job

Demands around the unsafe and unsanitary conditions at the plant were decidedly not about “spin” or for public consumption alone. Meatpacking is one of the most dangerous industries in this country. The industry has the highest rate of lost days due to injuries and its workers are the most likely to suffer from cumulative debilitating injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome.

One out of three meatpacking workers in the country were injured in 1998. The reality behind these statistics can be seen everyday at IBP. Many workers have to run their hands under warm water in the morning just to be able to move their fingers. After a few years on the job, many have lost the strength to grip a plastic bag of groceries in one hand.

Speedup is responsible for this tremendous human toll. The production chain that carries beef around the IBP plant like cars on an assembly line simply moves too fast for the number of people doing the work.

The chain speed doesn’t just pose a danger to workers. It’s a threat to consumers who are eating the meat coming out of these plants as well. Workers and management cannot maintain the chain speed and maintain proper sanitary conditions. One of the two has to give, and with management’s eye on the bottom line you can easily guess which one it is.

The result? Meat falls on the floor and goes unwashed. Motor oil from mechanized belts drips onto cutting boards and accumulates there where it soaks into the meat.

Workers in the slaughter department don’t have time to wash feces off of their hands before they must work on their next carcass. Abscesses in the meat emit pus that contaminates entire production areas.

In 1996, the year for which the most recent data are available, IBP’s Wallula plant logged 176 critical violations for conditions that federal regulators deemed certain to lead to contamination which could reach and sicken consumers. That number of critical violations was enough to place the plant in the worst five percent of the nation’s meat and poultry plants.

Membership Mobilization

Going into the contract campaign, activists saw the threat of publicizing these conditions along with workers’ ability to impact production as their main weapons.

They modeled their contract campaign after the 1997 Teamster campaign to gear up for the United Parcel Service contract. Campaign bulletins and rank-and-file actions were developed around each theme. Members circulated a petition for a just contract.

When the local union refused to hold a proposal meeting, workers held their own to discuss and vote on their four themes, and followed the meeting with a march to kick off their campaign. They held parking lot rallies after work and demonstrations inside the plant during breaks.

The goal of the campaign was to build up member participation over time, and to peak with activity around the safety and sanitary issues at the time that negotiations were coming to a head. Then, activists would use public exposure of the plant’s safety and sanitary problems—along with a work-to-rule campaign inside the plant after the contract and its restrictive No Strike/No Lockout clause had expired to win concessions from the company.

The early stages of the contract campaign worked as planned, but membership participation varied widely depending on the nature of the action.

The majority of workers filled out bargaining surveys, signed petitions, and participated in the other actions inside the plant that required a low level of risk or commitment. But participation in actions outside the plants like marches and rallies peaked at about twenty percent of the workforce, the smaller numbers in keeping with the greater commitment such actions required.

The participation of 250 to 300 workers in independently organized rank-and-file demonstrations and marches demonstrated impressive organization, unity and anger. But rank-and-file activists were unanimous in their view that while the contract campaign had united the membership to an unprecedented degree, most workers were not willing to strike.

From a strategic point of view, not striking had a lot to recommend it. IBP is a notoriously anti-union company with a history of digging in and aggressively combating strikes. It is doubtful under any circumstances that striking one link in this multinational giant’s chain of forty-eight plants would ever be the best strategy. One could argue that a well-coordinated strike at the Wallula plant—one of only two IBP processing facilities (as opposed to slaughter facilities) in the West—could be successful.

But such a strike would require coordination with sympathetic union leaderships at IBP’s other Western processing facility in Amarillo, Texas, also represented by the Teamsters, and at IBP’s largest plant in Dakota City, Nebraska where a United Food and Commercial Workers contract was approaching expiration.

Given that Local 556 members couldn’t count on support from their own local or International officials, let alone officials from other locals or Internationals, a protracted strike in Wallula was destined to end in defeat.

Activists continued to hold the view that members in Wallula would be unwilling to strike until just days before the June 4th walkout. The seeming impossibility of a strike meant that the members, even the activist core, never really discussed what a strike would entail and the problems with pursuing such a strategy. By the time the wildcat erupted, it was too late.

Strike Erupts

With the May 24 contract expiration date looming, activists launched another successful petition drive to reject a contract extension and to continue negotiating without a contract. With the expiration of the contract’s highly restrictive “Company and Union Responsibilities” clause which banned any “strike, work stoppage, picketing, slowdown, [or] deliberate withholding of production,” workers were free to turn up the heat with in-plant actions that affected production. The week after Local 556 refused to agree to a contract extension, a series of management blunders lit the fuse that exploded into the June 4th wildcat.

The week began with the Memorial Day holiday. To make up for lost production from workers’ time off, management turned up the already unbearable chain speed, running it at higher than normal speeds all week. The speedup particularly infuriated Slaughter Department workers, who were working only thirty-two hours a week under an emergency provision in the contract that allowed IBP to get around the thirty-six-hour weekly guarantee.

For two years, the Slaughter Department, which makes up roughly one-third of the workforce, had lagged behind the Processing Department (two-thirds of the plant) in organization and militancy. But months of reduced workweeks combined with the Memorial Day week speedup reversed that dynamic. By week’s end, Slaughter workers were at the head of the pack of workers throughout the plant who were fed up with the speedup and calling for a walkout to demand that the chain speed be reduced.

Lacking a plan for how to protect workers from retaliation or how to victoriously end a walkout once it began, activists initiated a slowdown instead.

Management responded by singling out a participating worker for discipline, setting in motion a rapid chain of events that soon shut down the plant. Martinez, the chief shop steward, demanded that she be present if the worker was taken to the office. The supervisor refused and ordered Martinez back to work.

By this time dozens of workers had stopped working and were confronting the supervisor, demanding that the worker be allowed union representation. The gauntlet had been thrown down, and the blockhead supervisor couldn’t resist picking it up. He gave the workers thirty seconds to return to work. They refused. The supervisor then terminated them all on the spot, including Martinez, and ordered them out the door.

Out the workers went, with nearly the entire plant in tow. Management was so panicked by the shutdown that they had foisted on themselves that they chained the doors of the plant from the outside to prevent the workers from leaving. Martinez called the police and reported that IBP had “kidnapped” the workforce. The police arrived on the scene, management sheepishly admitted that workers weren’t barred from striking, the chains were removed and the wildcat was on.

The Local 556 business agent arrived on the scene and immediately marched into the plant to talk with management, leaving the stunned members waiting outside. For hours, the business agent holed up with management waiting to see if the second shift workers would honor the strike. When they did, the business agent got in his car and drove off.

At that point, management announced that they would honor workers’ demand for amnesty for anyone participating in the job action—including the dozens of fired workers. But by then, workers were feeling their power. Sentiment was growing to stay out until management agreed to a contract. The strike continued through the night while members debated what to do next. A proposal to declare victory and return to work was resoundingly rejected. A week before, a strike at the plant seemed impossible. Now it was unstoppable.

Building Unity

At an angry meeting on Day 3 of the wildcat, workers confronted Al Hobart—the Hoffa-allied head of Joint Council 28, Washington State’s regional Teamster body—and demanded an official strike vote. They needed to get official backing for the strike in order to prevent management and the union from disciplining members for leading a wildcat.

Two days later, in a vote supervised by a Teamster International vice president, workers voted 847 to 291 to strike. Most, if not all, of the votes against the strike were cast by workers scabbing on the wildcat. Rather than have these workers vote at the picket line or at the union hall so that striking workers would have a chance to build bridges to those who had crossed the picket line, union officials had them vote inside the plant with no information or discussion. As a result, more than two hundred workers continued to scab even after the official strike vote.

Teamster officials, who never had a strategy for how to win a good contract, surely had no strategy for winning a strike. Their plan was to demobilize the strikers, leaving them to bake on the picket line in the Eastern Washington desert sun until the strikers were demoralized enough to accept what the company had to offer. But the IBP activists were not about to passively accept defeat.

Instead they transformed their in-plant network into an independent, rank-and-file strike leadership and took their struggle to the community. As Maria Martinez told attendees at the last TDU Convention:

“We leafleted grocery stores that carried IBP products. We held a Catholic mass at the picket line with 1,000 people. We made house visits to people who had crossed the picket line and convinced many to join the strike. We held a march through town of 2,000 strikers and supporters. And we held demonstrations in three cities against the USDA, the government agency that is supposed to make sure that meat is sanitary, and demanded an investigation.”

The USDA responded by sending investigators to interview workers the following week.

Community sympathy lay overwhelmingly with the strikers. The IBP plant is located between the Tri-Cities and Walla Walla, Washington, highly segregated communities with large immigrant population, especially from Mexico. Eighty percent of IBP workers are Spanish-speaking and support from the Latino community was overwhelming.

Mexican bakeries and restaurants brought food to the picket line. Local grocery stores offered coupons for free and discounted food for strikers only. Church leaders including the priest from the area’s predominately Mexican church were regular fixtures at the picket line, as were organizers from local farmworker unions.

Support from the Latino community was especially key to sustaining the morale of the plant’s Spanish-speaking workers, who made up the bulk of the strikers and had always made up the leadership of the rank-and-file movement. Since the beginning of their organizing, Latino activists had tried to build ties with Bosnian, Laotian and Vietnamese workers, but had limited success. When the strike began, activists reached out to workers in these groups to try to make the strike belong to everyone. Picket signs were made in all different languages. Representatives from all different ethnic groups led the march.

But the task of building interethnic unity and cooperation was difficult and shouldn’t be idealized. Language presented a formidable obstacle. Very few workers—whether they were Mexican, Bosnian, Laotian or Vietnamese—spoke English.. After picket line announcements and debates, which as a practical matter were held in Spanish and English, chief shop steward Maria Martinez would sit down with each of the other ethnic groups to discuss what was happening, answer questions, and gather opinions.

In this painstaking way, a multiethnic unity was preserved. That is, with the exception of Anglo workers. There, race trumped class decisively. All but two of the approximately 150 Anglo workers in the plant scabbed.

In part, this reflected institutional racism in the plant, where Anglo workers dominated access to the easier, “skilled” mechanic and maintenance jobs. They didn’t face the injuries, harassment or miserable working conditions of the Processing or Slaughter departments. And in part, Anglo scabbing reflected the anti-immigrant racism that Eastern Washington is known for. Anglo scabs talked openly of a“Mexican coup” that threatened to take over the union.

Sabotaging the Struggle

With union officials hoping that inaction would soften up the strikers to accept whatever the company was willing to offer, the activist-organized campaign against IBP was critical to building community support and uniting and animating the strikers.

Two weeks into the strike, strikers voted 688 to 52 to reject the company’s “last, best and final offer,” which included an average wage increase of just thirty-one cents a year for five years and did nothing to address workers’ demands for a safer and more sanitary plant.

Union officials collaborated with the company in an incredible scheme to ram through the contract. The scabs, who had all resigned from the union and had lost their right to vote on the company’s offer, were bussed to the union hall by the company. Once at the hall, union officials allowed the scabs to jump the line and re-enroll in the union in order to vote.

The scabs promptly reboarded the bus and returned to the plant, where they immediately recrossed the picket line. Strikers demanded that the scabs’ votes be placed in a separate box and they were never counted because the vote margin was so overwhelming.

Such acts of sabotage against the strike by Teamster officials were frequent, if not always as blatant, and they had a devastating affect on strikers’ morale. Rank-and-file strike leaders performed a complicated juggling act. It was frequently necessary to mobilize members to confront old guard officials when they tried to block strike actions, bad-mouthed rank-and-file leaders, and even urged members to cross the picket line.

But picket line confrontations with union officials drew attention to the lack of official union support, making the situation seem hopeless and demoralizing the strikers. So as much as possible, activists tried to direct workers’ energies on building community support for the strike and organizing actions that targeted the company.

Beyond bolstering strikers’ unity and generating community support, rank-and-file actions that targeted the company aroused the interest of the regional and national media. The New York Times and Los Angeles Times both ran prominent stories. Martinez and other strike leaders were regularly interviewed by local and regional print, television and radio media.

Meanwhile, the Teamsters bureaucracy tried to pretend the strike didn’t exist. At a meeting of all Western Region Teamster officers in Las Vegas in late June, the IBP strike, the largest strike in the Teamsters Union in 1999, was not mentioned. Hoffa’s Secretary-Treasurer Tom Keegel did find time, however, to tell cheering delegates that his message to TDU was, “Kiss my ass!”

The IBP workers asked the International Union to send a striker to address the Las Vegas meeting. The International complied with the request, but flew the striker, Melquiades Pereyra, to town after the meeting was already adjourned.

Pereyra then met with an International Vice President Jon Rabine, who informed him that Hoffa had rejected every single one of the workers’ requests for International Union strike support. (Requests included proposals that Hoffa visit the picket line to show solidarity and generate media attention, and that the International Union follow through on their promise to launch a boycott against IBP by sponsoring a National Day of Action where local unions would leaflet grocery stores across the country informing consumers about the unsanitary conditions under which their July 4th burgers were being processed.)

“Vice President Rabine told me that taking actions against the company would be a slap in the face to management, and that would be a bad idea because then management wouldn’t want to negotiate,” Pereyra said. “Rabine said that he would come negotiate the contract himself.”

Each blow against the strike by IBT officials up to this point—the refusal to provide information to the strikers, to back actions against the company, to speak to the media, to organize strike support from other unions, etc.—had its intended demoralizing affect and members in small numbers had crossed the line. But now, the International’s intentions to sell out the strike were clear, provoking the strongest demoralization yet. Workers began to talk openly of crossing the picket line, and dozens did.

Activists had to find a way to hold the line and provide a realistic alternative to surrender or a long-term strike without International Union support. In an effort to provide hope to workers who were considering crossing the line, the rank-and-file strike leaders announced that they would give Rabine a chance to negotiate an agreement.

But if Rabine failed to produce a good contract by bargaining on his knees then workers would demand a vote to return to work unconditionally to continue the struggle for a good contract from inside the plant. At the same time, activists announced that they would run a reform slate for local union office that fall to replace the officials who had refused to back the strike.

Rabine followed through on his promise to negotiate a contract. Disbanding the negotiating committee, he reached a tentative agreement with the company that provided an additional twenty-five cents over five years for workers in Processing, but not in Slaughter. In exchange for this meager improvement, Rabine agreed to eliminate the workers’ retirement plan, costing senior workers $1.50 an hour.

After the pension giveaway is subtracted from the $1.57 to $1.82 in wage increases that workers won and a new 401(k) benefit is factored in, senior employees ended up with an increase of between thirty-seven cents and sixty-two cents. Rabine presented the details of the company’s new offer in a room lined with police officers. Debate on the proposal was squelched, and members were prohibited from making a motion to end the strike and continue the contract fight from inside the plant. Faced with accepting a disastrous contract or remaining on strike with no union support, workers voted 276-258 to approve the contract.

“Many workers felt they had no choice but to vote yes,” said strike leader Melquiades Pereyra. “You can not beat a multinational corporation without any support from your International Union.”

Rabine and the other old guard officials left the room under police escort. Days later, Hoffa announced the Local 556 trusteeship.

Despite these difficult setbacks, neither the strike defeat nor the trusteeship have been able to disintegrate the rank-and-file movement at Local 556.

Workers returned to the plant after strike the same way they had left, marching together. Once inside, they immediately organized a slowdown. Management had to re-issue new knives and equipment to workers who had returned their tools in a heap the day that they walked out. On their first day back, workers concealed their new equipment and repeatedly demanded replacements, delaying the start of work by hours.

Martinez and fellow strike activist Maria Sauceda have filed suit in federal court to demand an end to the trusteeship. Activists have beaten back a company-aided, scab-organized union deauthorization campaign that would have made the plant an open shop, crippling the union’s finances. Shop floor organizing continues.

Who’s Got the Hat?

In one of his first acts as Trustee, Hoffa-appointee Al Hobart removed Maria Martinez as chief shop steward and ordered her to return to management the purple work helmet that identifies her as a shop steward.

Martinez complied with the order. Marching into the plant’s superintendent’s office with a delegation of co-workers, Martinez turned over her helmet and said, “You can have my hat, but you need to know something. Cesar Chavez didn’t have a hat. Jesse Jackson didn’t have a hat. And I am going to continue to organize and fight for my people.”

It is typical of Old Guard Teamster mentality to confuse titles with leadership. But the Teamster activists who have built a powerful rank-and-file movement at Teamsters Local 556 know better. Martinez is temporarily stripped of her office, just as members are temporarily stripped of their right to vote. But they have a seemingly permanent grip on something much more precious: the means and will to build rank-and-file power.

As Martinez roared to a standing ovation at the TDU Convention, “My TDU hat is the only hat I’ll ever need.”

ATC 84, January-February 2000

1 comment

  1. I myself Theung Dethsy found out this website and I Would like to make a complaint against this company. Since I had worked there for many years I also paid for an Union, But when I get fired I never get any penny back from the Company or Union. I had fired without reason which I had excuse from my Doctor back then.
    I believed most worker worked hard and dangerous.
    to me it’s seem like this company had no heart for their worker.

    After two years past they found out I had the right to go back because i had a good reason for absent.

    To me it’s seem like the people had no right and none of the laws in this country will help most worker.

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