Wisconsin town rallies to strike by Tyson meatpackers

Fred Feldman ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Tue Jul 29 18:52:49 MDT 2003

Small town takes stand against titan Tyson


July 27, 2003, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette


JEFFERSON, Wis. — Yard signs urge people to boycott Tyson Foods.
The town’s two grocery stories no longer sell Tyson chicken and
meat, and signs taped in restaurant windows advertise Tyson-free

A strike by 470 workers at Tyson’s Jefferson plant has turned
into a fight between some of the 7,300 residents of Jefferson and
the world’s largest meat company. The walkout is also the first
under Tyson by one of the former IBP meatpacking plants bought in
a 2001 deal that moved the Arkansas poultry company into beef and

The United Food and Commercial Workers union contends that the
company is using the Jefferson plant to send a message to other
former IBP meat plants to expect lower wages and benefits in the
future. But Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson says the company wants
to bring the Jefferson workers’ benefits in line with what its
other 110,000 workers receive and its wages in line with what
comparable workers earn in the region.

Some people in this workingclass community 30 miles east of
Madison are supporting the striking employees, who have been off
the job since Feb. 28. "I don’t know if this small town can make
a difference, but we’re doing as much as we can," said Chad
Stelse, who manages Frank’s County Market.

That’s why Ken’s Towne Inn no longer uses Tyson pepperoni on its
pizza even though "Hormel’s is only half as good," manager Butch
Janke said. It’s also why other businesses are offering
discounts, collecting food and finding other ways to help the
workers who produce pepperoni, hams, bologna and hot dogs at the

Tyson, which posted $23.4 billion in sales in 2002, got the
Jefferson plant and about 60 others when it bought IBP two years
ago. One of those plants, a pork facility in Waterloo, Iowa,
reached a contract deal with the company last year that raised
wages and improved some benefits but also increased insurance

The company’s Jefferson offer would freeze wages for four years
and cut new hires’ hourly wages from about $11 to $9, both sides
say. Tyson would give workers bonuses when they ratify the
contract and at the end of each year but wants workers to pay
more for health-care coverage, Nicholson said.

The plant’s average hourly wage is nearly $14, among Tyson’s
highest, Nicholson said. Last year the average meat-processing
wage was $12 an hour, and the average poultry-processing wage was
$10.13 an hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There have been no negotiations since the strike started. Tyson
has hired replacement workers and has no plans to resume
negotiations. Nicholson said the company stands by its latest

Union spokesman Jill Cashen said the union sees the Jefferson
situation as the first move by Tyson to lower compensation at the
old IBP plants. "Clearly Tyson is trying to set some kind of
agenda to ratchet down wages and benefits in the red-meat
industry, down to the level of their poultry plants, where
workers earn lower wages and have fewer benefits," Cashen said.

Industry watchers, however, aren’t so sure the strike signals
future labor battles within Tyson and don’t believe the issue has
much significance outside Jefferson. "To the people involved, I’m
sure it’s a gigantic issue. But for the industry at large...
there are a lot bigger issues," said Keith Nunes, senior editor
at the industry magazine Meat and Poultry.

Donald Stull, a professor at the University of Kansas who studies
the industry, sees the strike as part of the industry’s longtime
effort to cut labor costs.

Nicholson said Tyson has shown it can work with the unions in
place at a quarter of its 300 facilities. "We feel the contract
we are offering is competitive based on what’s currently being
offered in the area," he said.

For Jefferson, the strike isn’t just about 470 workers and their
families — it also could hurt the town’s economy. About 1,500
people in the area work in manufacturing, and Tyson accounts for
a third of those jobs, said Terry Ludeman, a state labor

At Knutson Jewelers, owner Dave Knutson felt the pinch of slowing
sales soon after the strike started. "This is the last thing they
think about buying," he said.

Sue Garity, who has worked at the plant for 27 years, already has
limited her spending. She thinks her family may consider moving
if Tyson closes the plant or wins out in negotiations.

The strikers are getting increasingly frustrated, but Mayor
Arnold Brawders said the town seems to be standing firm behind
them. "Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be an end in
sight," he said.


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