Political Intelligence

Labor Battles On



Hundreds of IBP meatpacking workers in Amarillo walked off the job last month, after worker efforts to address pay and safety concerns met with blank stares from the company and the Teamsters Union local that purports to represent them. Because the union contract is not currently up for renegotiation, the company declared the worker protest an illegal walkout, and fired any worker who did not return to work three days after the protest began.

In part because of pay rates that are reportedly lower than at other meatpacking plants in the area, the plant has been operating for months with fewer employees than its own crewing guidelines recommend, according to workers, thus increasing the already-substantial risk of on-the-job injuries. Workers also complain of harassment and discrimination. The plant employs roughly 2800 workers, the majority of them Hispanic.

Several groups of workers had independently staged walkouts in the past due to staffing shortages. In early September, one group of workers approached management to discuss pay and safety issues. According to chuck boner José Vasquez, who was present at the subsequent meeting, managers agreed to consult IBP’s corporate offices about their concerns.

A week later, in a follow-up meeting, the workers were told that their contract could not be amended, and management, with the help of union officials and plant security, escorted 47 of them out of the plant (where sherriff’s deputies were waiting with paddy wagons, though the paddy wagons were not put to use). Other workers were told to return to their jobs or leave the plant, and a number of them chose the latter option, joining the 47 outside to protest IBP’s decision.

IBP obtained a temporary injunction September 21, ordering former workers to desist from picketing the plant or encouraging a work stoppage. A hearing on the injunction has been postponed until late October. In the meantime, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) President Rick Dovalina has said he will attempt to negotiate with Tyson Foods, which recently acquired IBP, so that workers might get their jobs back under improved conditions.


A strike is underway at a Campbell Soup plant in Paris, Texas, in the wake of failed negotiations between the company and the local union. In the past, according to United Food and Commercial Workers Union spokesman Greg Denier, Paris followed Napoleon: Napoleon, Ohio, that is, where Campbell has another plant. The Ohio plant and the Texas plant have long had similar contracts, Denier said, so when Napoleon’s workers signed a contract in February, Paris workers expected to secure one like it this fall. Instead, he said, “The company management turned on these workers and demanded they get rid of their defined benefit pension plan”–replacing it with a less desirable cash balance pension, which offers no guaranteed benefits. Company management is also trying to impose higher medical-insurance premiums and lump-sum pay increases instead of percentage increases.

“Each of our plants negotiates its own separate agreements,” said Campbell spokesman John Faulkner. “Each has its own separate economic realities.”

After negotiations stalled, hundreds of workers went on strike October 4–the first strike at the plant since 1968. (The plant has 1200 employees, 700 of whom are union members.) Ten days later, employees offered to return to work, but Campbell turned them away and placed barricades around the plant. “There was no protection for us. They could walk out again,” Faulkner explained.

“Why would you settle in Ohio and then come to Texas and start a war?” asked Denier. If the company is trying to disassemble the contract or weaken the union, he said, it has chosen the wrong approach. “If a worker in that plant has not been a union member, they probably will join now.” Denier says. “Rather than eliminate the union, they’ve created some militant union members.”


At press time, trade-watchers were still waiting to see whether fast-track legislation in the U.S. House would be scheduled for a floor vote (which depends on whether the Republicans can wrangle enough votes to pass the bill). Rep. Bill Thomas’s (R-CA)H.B. 3002, which passed out of the House Ways and Means Committee October 9, would restore fast-track trade negotiation powers to the executive branch. Fast-track, which was authorized in 1988 and expired in 1994, allows the administration to negotiate trade agreements which Congress may then approve or reject, but not modify.

The trouble with fast-track, as Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch and others have pointed out, is that it delegates Congress’s constitutionally -granted authority over trade regulation to the executive branch, and that it fails to guarantee labor and environmental protections in the bargain. The fast-track process may once have sufficed for negotiating the technicalities of tariffs and quotas, but in the era of NAFTA and GATT-WTO, when trade agreements affect a wide variety of issues, the public ought to have a place at the negotiating table, argue critics of the legislation.