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FEATURE The View From Outside IBP Workers Protest Wages, Working Conditions in Amarillo BY KAREN OLSSON he 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 Spanishspeaking 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. Qn 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 highmaking 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 unrecompany, wages at the plant$9 to $11 per hourweren’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 Jose 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 1 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 renegotiationthe workers are represented by Teamsters union local 577and 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,” 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. 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11/9/01