Workers start to stand up in defense of their rights

EDITOR'S NOTEBOOK

BY ART CULLEN

In the absence of unions, somebody has to stand up for workers in the ever-dangerous meatpacking industry. Enter Axel Fuentes, a displaced Guatemalan corn farmer who finds himself organizing similarly displaced refugees to demand their human rights.

“It is hard. But I don’t get discouraged. There are frustrations. But I will never give up,” said Fuentes, who organized the Rural Community Worker Alliance in Milan, Mo., where Smithfield’s pork plant employs 1,200 mainly immigrant workers.

He’s been trying to organize immigrants for 12 years in Missouri and Kansas. Perhaps the highlight came in April when the RCWA sued Smithfield over alleged worker safety violations. That brought a federal inspection to Milan, and a wave of safety improvements throughout the meatpacking industry that had not been seen in decades. In May, a judge dismissed the suit.

“In March, we were just about ready to strike,” Fuentes said.

It is a non-union plant, like Storm Lake’s. He was getting 200 to 300 people to show up at rallies. Often he meets with 50 to 60 at a time. Instead of striking they sued using a group called Public Justice, a California public-interest law firm. It got results. Trying to petition the company for meetings didn’t work.

This month, Public Justice and the RCWA joined several other groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in filing a discrimination claim against Tyson and JBS for workplace discrimination against people of color. LULAC and TeamCAN, the community organizing arm of the Teamsters Union, earlier had organized workplace safety councils in Iowa meatpacking towns to demand improvements.

Tyson, for its part, says it exceeds federal safety guidelines and has made significant changes in its operations to protect workers from the coronavirus. It conducted testing and health education for workers in Storm Lake, and continues to test on a selective basis.

In Milan, like Storm Lake, workers were offered hazard pay. Sick leave rules were said to be relaxed.

Well before the pandemic, people like Fuentes and TeamCAN were trying to organize immigrants, many undocumented, as they faced eviction from mobile homes or problems with city authorities. They tasted victories in Alta and Columbus Junction where mobile home residents organized to protect themselves from eviction. The same thing is happening in Missouri.

“We try to help them in any way we can,” Fuentes said. “Some of our workers have had bad experiences with unions. Little by little, we get workers to believe in unions again. And we are getting community support. That is very important.”

Storm Lake hasn’t known a meatpacking union for 40 years. Every once in a while the United Food and Commercial Workers sniff around. But it’s tough organizing people who fear losing their jobs or being deported, even if they have legal papers. Fuentes knows all too well.

When President Trump ordered workers back into the pork and turkey plants, there was no union voice to speak up. But there were TeamCAN and LULAC, which demanded to know how Tyson could improve workplace safety. That conversation never really started. Hence, the complaint was filed with USDA.

Brent Newell, the lead lawyer on the complaint, told me that a movement among workers had been forming “under the radar” that included building a base. It’s no longer hidden thanks to the pandemic, which exposed how powerless workers are today. When it became clear that people like Fuentes were prepared to sue, the industry moved to have widespread liability protections imposed by state and federal authorities. Those protections will be attacked by class actions brought by advocacy groups and by independent attorneys representing dead clients.

“We want to serve the movement,” Newell said. “I am just riding shotgun.”

Fuentes says it is easy to lay down when you get a $500 hazard pay check. Still, workers slaughtering broiler chickens are paid $12-13 per hour and have among the highest Covid rates in the nation.

Jesse Case, a Storm Lake native who leads the Iowa Teamsters and founded TeamCAN, said several national organizations plan lawsuits against the meatpacking industry. He said exposing the plight of vulnerable workers had made the nation acutely aware, and that organizing is taking shape. “For the first time in Iowa, there is coalition building going on between labor and immigrants. We’re having weekly Zoom meetings with union officials, immigrant advocates and workers. That has never happened before in Iowa,” Case said.

“This is one of those ‘Whose side are you on?’ moments.”

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