The View From Outside

IBP Workers Protest Wages, Working Conditions in Amarillo

The IBP beef processing plant in Amarillo, like meatpacking plants elsewhere, is separated into two sides: slaughter and processing, or matanza and proceso, as they are known to the Spanish-speaking workers who make up a majority of the IBP workforce. The function of each side corresponds to its name, and their joint purpose is to turn live cattle into hamburger, brisket, sausage, and other beef products. On the processing side, the task of boning chucks, in which meat is extricated from around the cow’s neck vertebrae with a flexible knife, is one of the more difficult and highly paid jobs in the plant. Chuck boners, as a result, are among the more senior workers, and it was a group of chuck boners and other skilled workers who approached management in September with what they considered to be a serious problem in the way the plant was operating.

In beef processing plants, cattle carcasses move along on chains, past lines of specialized workers. At the September meeting, workers complained that many of the lines within the plant had been short-staffed for months, while the speed of the processing chain remained high–making IBP an even more dangerous place to work than it had been to begin with. (Meatpacking is the job with the highest reported injury rate in the country, with about a quarter of workers reporting injuries in 1999, and many more injuries go unreported.) Although IBP, now owned by Tyson Foods, is a giant company, wages at the plant–$9 to $11 per hour–weren’t high enough, the workers said. Other meatpacking plants in the area were paying up to $2 an hour more, and IBP workers were threatening to apply for jobs elsewhere if the company didn’t raise wages. According to José Vazquez, a chuck boner who attended the meeting, the managers paid attention: “They said ‘Yeah, we agree with you. We’re going to send this to corporate. Please don’t quit.'”

Yet the following week, said Vazquez, “they came back with the answer: No. Not half a penny. They told us what they were going to tell us, and then they pushed us out the door. They had security and green hats [managers] there, saying either get off IBP property or be arrested. Then they blocked the hallway and pushed us out through the slaughter side.” Roughly 50 people were forced outside, where Potter County sheriff’s deputies were waiting with paddy wagons–though in the end, no one was arrested. Meanwhile, back inside the plant, word of what had happened quickly spread, and other workers abandoned their stations. “People just stood back from the table and let the meat go,” said Martina Marcus, “I looked around and saw that people were not working. I saw some of my people, they were leaving, and I walked out with them.” She made her way to the hallway, where six armed policemen and “every single green hat on the production floor” had formed a line to block the way to the telephones and the locker room.

By the end of the shift, hundreds of workers had walked out, and hundreds more, when they arrived for second shift, joined the protest outside rather than report for work. IBP declared their action an illegal strike, because it did not occur during contract renegotiation–the workers are represented by Teamsters union local 577–and announced it would fire anyone who did not return to work by the end of that week. Nonetheless an estimated 500 to 600 people chose to stay outside.

Officials at IBP’s South Dakota headquarters criticized the walkout and dismissed the workers’ concerns. According to company spokesman Gary Mickelson, there is no staffing problem at the Amarillo plant. “They walked out over wages,” he said. “After that, as we began to hire (new) people, their rhetoric changed in order to gain public sympathy.” As for the staffing issue, said Mickelson, “Did they raise that with management before they walked out?” The requisite number of workers may change according to what product is being made by the plant, he added. “A lot of this is just a misunderstanding of our business.”

In the weeks that followed, the workers who walked out, along with the smaller group who seem to have been locked out, found themselves saddled with two somewhat contradictory aims: to publicly criticize the working conditions they had endured on the job, which many did by rallying on the stretch of highway in front of the plant entrance, and to try, with the help of a group of local lawyers and a cadre of outside negotiators, to persuade the company to give them their jobs back. Those two goals correspond, in turn, to things that many workers would like to secure on a long-term basis: greater public awareness of the unsafe and abusive conditions in slaughter plants, and effective negotiating power within the company. Many say the Teamsters local, which did not play an active role in the recent negotiations, has long failed to provide the latter. On October 26, IBP offered to take back most of the workers; whether they manage to improve the situation at the plant will most likely depend on whether they can change the union and retain outside support.

When I visited Amarillo one warm, windy day in late September, a couple hundred workers were stationed on the grassy roadside across the highway from the plant. Long rows of cars were parked there, tents and a tarp-roofed pavilion had been set up, and the protesters, almost all of them Hispanic, sat or stood around in clusters. The scene had the look of a strike from which the signs and placards had been removed–which is more or less what had happened. Shortly after the walkout, IBP obtained a court injunction which, among other things, ordered the protesters not to incite others to join them, and as a result they took down their signs. Activity centered around an orange and tan Silverado pickup, with American flags attached to the bed and a lone remaining sign–a tarp painted with the words “United As One”–draped over the side. In front of the truck was a microphone, hooked up to a Peavey guitar amp on the roof of the cab, and every so often someone stood in front of the truck and spoke to the crowd–making announcements, delivering encouragement, and leading the periodic cheers of “Sí se puede!”

Not long after I arrived, one of the speakers advised the protesters that there was a reporter present, and I was promptly surrounded by a dozen workers, one holding up a misaligned joint, another indicating fingers that no longer close to make a fist, a third and a fourth pointing to shoulders that have been operated on, all of them in turn describing the day-to-day difficulties of the meatpacking line. One woman said that she had been assigned to catch 16-pound bags of meat as they came off a conveyer belt, then throw them onto a table four feet away, and that she was repeatedly yelled at for not catching all the meat. A man spoke of working with one other person on a knifing line designed to have four people; recently he had cut himself twice. “One day I told a manager we needed another worker, and he told me that I was crazy,” he said.

“They tell you that you’re crazy or that you’re old,” added another man. “I said that my arm hurt, and they told me I was old.”

“They shouldn’t have to use such bad language,” said another. Several said they were frequently cursed at and referred to as wetbacks.

The breaks keep getting shorter, others said, and sometimes management will stack all the breaks early in the shift, leaving workers to endure hours of repetitive, strenuous work without a pause. Women spoke of being asked to perform sexual favors in return for better work assignments. Plant workers requesting to go to the restroom are told to wait 40 minutes. “It’s a mafia there inside,” a man said,”a mafia of green hats, together with the union.”

IBP built its Amarillo plant in 1974, not long after a bitter and violent 1969 strike by the Amalgamated Meatcutters’ Union (which would later become part of the United Food and Commercial Workers) at IBP’s Dakota City, Nebraska, plant. At the new Texas plant arrived a new union, the Teamsters, one not traditionally associated with meatpacking workers, though long associated with corruption and thuggish tactics. In Amarillo, many workers see the union as an extension of management. (Workers are not alone in that perception: In 1998, when I wrote a story about worker injuries at the plant, a former supervisor told me plainly, “We owned that union.”)

Five years ago punch-room worker Juana Martinez asked to be appointed a shop steward–a union representative on the plant floor–”because I wanted to help the people.” But her opportunities to do so were limited. Mostly she helped by translating for Spanish-speaking workers when they were being disciplined or fired, she says. She joined the union’s safety committee, which met once a month, but “mostly they were talking about the balance of the bank account or things going on in Amarillo, not really about safety issues.”

Union officials don’t make much of a show of supporting the workers when reporters call. In 1998, when I contacted local president Jerry McCown to ask about injuries in the plant, including several recent amputations and a death, McCown (who has since retired) seemed unconcerned about the situation and described the company as “very safety-conscious.” Right after the recent walkout, union president Rusty Stepp was quoted by the Amarillo Globe-News telling members to go back to work; otherwise he has remained in the background during the conflict. Workers say he chided them as they walked out and jested that he should have asked for a raise–for himself. According to one source present in negotiations between the company and worker advocates, the union officials at the meeting said close to nothing. “The way I see it, nobody wants that union,” says Martinez. “They’d rather have a different one.” Stepp earns $103,000 per year. He did not return phone calls for this story.

The troubles with the Amarillo union are not new ones for the Teamsters: Unrepresentative, undemocratic locals are one of the problems which the union’s reformers have fought to address in recent years. According to an upcoming article in Labor Notes, the Amarillo IBP plant is one of three meatpacking plants in the country whose workers are represented by the Teamsters, and recently all three have seen strikes or walkouts attributable to problems with the union as well as with management. One of the other plants is also an IBP facility, in Pasco, Washington; there, after several years of struggle, workers aligned with Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group, have taken control of the union.

In September Tony Perlstein, a Teamsters’ organizer based in Pasco, took vacation time to visit Amarillo protesters and campaign for TDU candidates in the Teamsters’ national election, which began in October. (Pasco union leader Maria Martinez is running on the reform slate.) What happened in Pasco, he says, “is the exact same thing [Amarillo workers] are going through–the speed of the line, the dangerous conditions, the bad pay, and a union incapable or unwilling to address those problems, it’s the exact same. The company is the same, the conditions are the same.” While the Pasco IBP plant is still by no means an ideal workplace, according to Perlstein, since electing new union leaders in 1998 workers have quadrupled the number of shop stewards, launched a safety campaign, and won a lawsuit forcing the company to pay millions in unpaid wages.

Could Amarillo workers follow Pasco’s lead? Pasco’s Maria Martinez paid a visit to protesters in October, to campaign and to share her experience, and according to Juana Martinez her visit was well-received. But when it comes to organizing at the plant, the precedent is not exactly encouraging: Four years ago, with the assistance of local attorney Jeff Blackburn, a TDU official came to speak to a group of IBP workers. “We just got booed and spit on, because of the idea that they had to stay in the Teamsters union,” Blackburn recalls. “The rank and file doesn’t want to stay in the union.” The following year, chuck boner Vazquez ran for president of the local and apparently lost–though he says he and other workers were not allowed to observe the vote tally. Last month’s protest may have laid the foundation for a long-term push to reform the union, yet under the terms of the company’s back-to-work agreement, it’s likely that the company won’t hire back some of the leaders who emerged during the walkout.

A certain degree of disorder seemed to prevail when I went to Amarillo, as a variety of advocates tried to help the protesters negotiate with the company. A group of local lawyers volunteered to represent the workers named in the injunction, but the lawyers deemed it unlikely that the protesters’ jobs would be restored by legal means. Representatives of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service had arrived for an audience with company officials, but initial talks yielded only a scheduling of further talks. Then on October 17, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) President Rick Dovalina joined the government negotiators in a meeting with officials from the union, IBP, and Tyson Foods, which acquired IBP last year.

At press time, a back-to-work offer had been extended by the company, but not yet agreed upon. According to several sources, the company said it would hire back all but the 70 workers seen by them as responsible for inciting the walkout, while applications from the latter group would be entertained on a case-by-case basis. Although the plant may not seem like the kind of place anyone would be eager to return to, workers who’d walked out expressed a desire to go back. “I work in the worst job, but I love my job. I miss my job,” says Juana Martinez. “We all love our jobs. The only thing that makes our jobs hard is the way they treat us.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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