RUSSELVILLE, Ala. - In the biggest union election in Alabama in ten years more than 1,200 workers at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant here voted last week by a better than two-to-one margin to join the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union.
Poultry production is one of the state's largest industries.
"We had no respect from management and absolutely no voice in anything that affected us," said Cheryl Kowalski, who works in the plant's sanitation department.
"They told us what to do and when to do it and there were no questions allowed.
"If there were any problems you couldn't go to management because they did not want to deal with resolving them. The bottom line was that you do what you are told or you don't have a job. The union for me was about giving me a glimmer of hope."
As soon as the union organizing drive got underway, Pilgrim's Pride moved quickly to try and stamp out that "glimmer of hope."
Workers reported that weeks of captive audience meetings were held at which they were threatened with mass layoffs and told the plant could close if they voted for the union.
Anti-union literature was handed out at the plant gates and placed all over the work sites. Workers were urged to wear "Vote No" T-shirts handed out by management.
Unable to even mention the word "union" at the plant, workers were forced to draw up plans off site and in secret at a local gas station. Company officials, when they found out about the meetings, pressured the gas station managers into barring workers from meeting there.
When workers began renting hotel rooms to hold their meetings the hotels were threatened with boycotts by company managers.
"They tried just about everything they could think of to disrupt the union organizing drive and scare workers into voting 'no,' said RWDSU's Mid-South Organizer, Randy Hardley. "But the workers weren't fooled. They wanted a change and they weren't going to let the threats affect them."
Sharon Hall, a worker in poultry production, said she was feeling positive about the union campaign well before the actual victory in the election.
"Over several weeks, management held many meetings encouraging us not to vote for the union, but a month into the organizing campaign, I knew we were going to win and I could see it in everyone's eyes."
For some at the plant winning the vote, it seems, changed more than just their workplace.
"I feel good these days," said J.R. (Morris) Harris, another worker in the production department. "That day when we won the vote is a day in my life I will never forget."
Photo: Workers in support of the union meet during their successful organizing drive. Photo courtesy RWDSU.