Striking poultry workers: Change is coming

WINESBURG, Ohio — “We’re the poster child for the Employee Free Choice Act,” said Dario Renosa, an organizer with the United Food and Commercial Workers. He was part of a recent caravan that came from Columbus to support the strike by 450 workers at the Case Farms chicken processing plant here.

The strike began last May after the workers voted more than two-to-one for the UFCW to represent them. Under the Employee Free Choice Act, which is the top legislative priority for the labor movement, companies would be forced to negotiate contracts when a majority of workers sign cards requesting union recognition. Failure to reach agreement in a timely fashion would result in binding arbitration.

Case Farms is located in rural Holmes County, famous for its large Amish community. The familiar black horse and buggy outfits the Amish ride in are far more likely to be seen here than a union picket line, or, for that matter, even a union office. Despite the union vote by the plant’s largely Guatemalan immigrant workers, Case Farms has resorted to what is called “surface bargaining,” in which they pretend to bargain, but actually just waste time with low-ball offers and attempt to discourage the workers and undermine the union.

“First they offered a two-cent raise,” said union representative Tim Mullins, “then raised that, finally, to a nickel. They haven’t legitimately addressed any of our issues.”

Money is clearly one of the key union issues. “I’m making $8.10/hour now, after 20 years at this place, same as the new guys that just get hired in,” said striker Ken Brown. “How are you supposed to feed a family on that?”

He went on to highlight another issue of great concern to the workers: safety. “I’d had heart problems, high blood pressure and a heart attack, and I was having chest pains on the job,” he said. “So I went to the boss to ask to get help. He gave me two aspirins and told me to go back to work.”

Another worker, Heidi Reyes, said, “I had to work for months without the use of one hand. I’d gone to the hospital and the doctor told me that I needed to take time off and get my severe tendonitis treated. The boss told me to go back to work or I’d be fired.”

“Our line is solid, and the Teamsters drivers don’t cross our line,” said Sam Ramos. “Just a week ago, we had a couple union drivers pull up. They just called their company, wished us well, turned around and drove away.”

The strikers continue to gain new converts, as new workers join the lines each week. “Really, we’re all friends,” said Adolfo Jimenez. “We go to the workers’ homes and talk about the need to join the union. We do this every week. Many times, they come out for lunch and talk with us. Eventually they stay.”

As if illustrating this unusual situation, a group of 20 or 25 workers noisily crammed together near the plant door. One of the workers had been out talking with the strikers and returned, carrying a union paper. He was reading it aloud, while all the others pushed close to him, trying to get news from the union. A couple in the back were jumping up, trying to see more.

“This company is bad news,” Jimenez continued. “We had to file a class action lawsuit against them just to try to get them to even pay the wages we’d already worked for.”

Mullins spoke of the growing support movement, and how it has buoyed the strikers’ spirits. Recently, Cleveland Jobs with Justice organized a large solidarity caravan. At a rally to support the strikers John Ryan, representing Sen. Sherrod Brown and state representative Mike Foley, forcefully called for justice for the Case strikers. “With Obama in now, and a new Labor Department, a new attorney general in Ohio, I think it may finally be possible to win,” Mullins said.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Reyes shouted, “but we’re fighting for justice and we know we’ll win. Change is coming!”

Echoing Reyes, Allie Petonic, UFCW organizer, who organized the caravan that braved frigid conditions to bring food, supplies and nearly 100 supporters to the picket line, told the crowd that Holmes County had voted for Obama.

“Obama said he would sign the Employee Free Choice Act if it comes to his desk,” she said.