Tyson workers vow to keep up fight

“Another day longer, another day stronger.” That’s how striking Tyson Foods worker Sherri Anderson summed up the status of what is shaping up to be an epic labor battle. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney visited the picket line in Jefferson, Wis., on Nov. 7 to show the federation’s support for the striking food workers.

The story will be familiar to many: Until this year, workers at the Doskocil Food Services plant in Jefferson had gone 124 years without a strike. Some workers there had parents and grandparents in the plant before them. The workers had offered concessions when the plant faced bankruptcy in the 1980s, but in 2001 the plant was making a strong profit, putting out about 100 tons of pepperoni a day, half of the nation’s domestic output.

In 2001, Tyson Foods, already the world’s largest marketer and processor of chicken, purchased beef producer IBP and became the top company in the red meat market. One of the IBP plants it bought was Doskocil, and it sought at the first opportunity to reduce wages and benefits.

After dozens of negotiation sessions and an eight-month extension contract, the workers, represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 538, determined that Tyson was unwilling to negotiate in good faith. The offer on the table would have cut sick leave benefits by half and vacation time by a third, reduced starting wages by nearly a quarter, frozen wages, and required large new contributions toward health benefits.

Tyson Senior Vice President Ken Kimbro said the offer was “luxurious” compared to what Tyson offers its workers elsewhere. On Feb. 9, the union voted to strike – unanimously.

Since then, workers have maintained a continuous picket at the plant gate. Of 470 represented workers, only five have returned to work in nine months. Chief Steward Ron Peich told the World that when the first three crossed the line, “they said they had a hundred people lined up to walk with them; no one did.”

Frank Emspak, professor of Labor Education at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers, has been observing the fight in Jefferson since it began. “This is a very bad economic environment for labor. No one can say what will happen. But to have stayed out so long and to have remained so unified, it’s a very encouraging sign.”

Support has continued to spread for the workers. As earlier reported in the World, Dane County voted in June to join a boycott of Tyson products, including Tombstone, DiGiorno, Domino’s and Jack’s pizzas that use Tyson pepperoni. Since then, similar resolutions have been passed by Jefferson County, the city of Madison, the University of Wisconsin, and other purchasers of Tyson products. Two weeks ago an effort to bring the entire state government into the boycott was blocked by Republicans in the Legislature. Presidential candidates like Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean have also pledged to support the workers, and Dean has asked his supporters to contribute to the workers’ strike fund. The union has estimated the loss to the workers and the community in wages and buying power at roughly a million dollars for each month the strike goes on. Tyson, meanwhile, has reported its third-quarter earnings were $25 million less than a year ago, which president John Tyson acknowledged reflected the bite of the strike.

Sweeney said the Tyson strikers were fighting a battle for all labor, and he urged other union heads to extend their support. “I have never seen a more courageous group of workers,” said Sweeney. “The solidarity of this group of UFCW workers and the support of the community is just exemplary.”

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