[Marxism] The incredible disappearing Latino (was: David Bacon...)

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 21 06:50:09 MST 2006

>So now comes David Bacon and he assures us these raids were about ... what?
>Smashing the Latino movement? No, union-busting. That the workers who were
>targetted were Latinos, that all those being deported are in fact Latinos,
>even that goes unsaid.

I simply don't understand this rant.

There is a history in this history going back to 
the attack on P9 that is focused on the 
superexploitation of Latino workers. To smash the 
unions and drive down wages, it became convenient 
for the bosses to look the other way when it came 
to having 'papeles'. Now that there is a 
concerted drive to organized the meatpacking 
industry, with Latino workers in the vanguard, 
these same bosses become scrupulous about obeying immigration laws.

Here's some background:

The Shame of Meatpacking


[from the September 16, 2002 issue]

The strike began, Maria Martinez recalls, because 
a worker on the loin line wasn't keeping up with 
the pace of production. When a supervisor pulled 
him into the office, some thirty workers, 
Martinez among them, dropped their knives and 
followed him there. "The superintendent said, 
'You've got sixty seconds to get back to work, or 
everyone's fired,'" says Martinez. "We didn't 
move, and then he said, 'OK, you guys are all 
fired.' So we went outside, and the next thing we 
knew there were hundreds of people outside." This 
was in June 1999, at an IBP meatpacking plant 
near Pasco, Washington. Fed up with plant 
conditions and stalled contract negotiations, 
close to 800 workers, nearly all of them 
immigrants, rallied alongside the plant access road for five weeks.

They returned to work discouraged. Though the new 
contract, narrowly approved, raised starting pay 
from $7 to $8.50, it eliminated the old 
$1.50-an-hour pension and did not include a 
provision allowing workers to stop the chain for 
sanitary reasons, which workers had wanted. But 
for Martinez, now principal officer of Teamsters 
Local 556 in Walla Walla, Washington, the strike 
was a step forward. "We lost, but we also gained 
respect, we gained dignity, we gained a lot of 
strength," Martinez says. On the day they 
returned to work, she says, "we parked our cars 
on the picket line, and we all walked in 
together, chanting, 'The union is back!'"

In fact, IBP workers had made significant gains 
before the strike, organizing themselves and 
voting to change the local's bylaws so they could 
elect their own shop stewards. The following 
summer, Martinez and fellow strike leader 
Melquiadez Pereya were elected to lead the local, 
replacing the older Anglo officers who workers 
say failed to maintain a strong union presence in 
the plant. And three years later, the union is 
back more than ever: The revitalized Local 556 
has made a dramatic impact on the shop floor, 
defending the interests of individual workers 
while pushing for a safer, more sanitary workplace.

The shouts of protest aren't just coming from 
Washington. Last September in Amarillo, Texas, 
hundreds of workers walked out of another IBP 
plant to protest low wages and chronic staff 
shortages that had made their already dangerous 
jobs all the more stressful and hazardous. At an 
Excel meatpacking plant in Ft. Morgan, Colorado, 
more than 400 workers conducted another wildcat 
strike last February. And in Omaha, Nebraska, an 
Industrial Areas Foundation-affiliated community 
group called Omaha Together One Community (OTOC) 
and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) 
have teamed up to organize workers in a dozen 
area packing plants. According to IAF organizer 
Tom Holler, when OTOC began holding meetings in 
South Omaha in 1993, "It was clear from day one 
that the major issue in the community was the conditions in these plants."

As readers of Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation 
(and of past reports in this and other 
publications) are well aware, America's 150,000 
meatpacking workers perform the most dangerous 
job in the country, many of them making knife 
cuts every few seconds. In 2000 the official 
illness and injury rate for meatpacking workers 
was 25 percent. Given the chronic underreporting 
of injuries in the industry, particularly when it 
comes to cumulative stress disorders, the actual 
injury rate is probably much higher. In Walla 
Walla, the union examined plant injury logs and 
found that 781 injuries had been recorded in 1999 
and 2000, while in a recent union-sponsored 
survey of just under 500 workers, two-thirds said 
they had suffered a work-related health problem in the past twelve months.

The reasons for this are no secret. Four giant 
competitors--IBP, ConAgra, Excel (owned by 
Cargill) and Farmland National Beef--dominate the 
beef industry, together controlling over 85 
percent of the US market. Because profit margins 
are much slimmer than in other manufacturing 
sectors, the companies are especially intent on 
keeping labor costs as low as possible and volume 
as high as possible--which translates into hiring 
cheap labor, discouraging unions and maintaining 
intolerably high chain speeds, even if those 
things contribute to the industry's astronomical 
turnover rates. Because so many meatpacking 
workers are recent, non-English-speaking 
immigrants, some of them in the country 
illegally, they are less likely to complain about 
unsafe conditions. Meanwhile, inspections by the 
Occupational Safety and Health Administration 
dropped to an all-time low by the late 1990s. No 
one expects that trend to be reversed under 
President Bush, who last year proposed cuts in 
OSHA's budget and, in a move urged by the meat 
industry and other business groups, repealed 
workplace ergonomics standards that had been under development for ten years.

Trying to take on a giant meatpacker is not an 
easy task; in Amarillo more than 500 workers who 
walked out lost their jobs. (Some have since been 
hired back.) And it's highly unlikely that a few 
revitalized union locals could, on their own, 
force the powerful packers to slow down the 
breakneck pace of production--the primary cause 
of the industry's stunningly high injury rates. 
But after years of industry unionbusting and 
co-optation, the recent worker actions cut promisingly against the grain.

"There are things that explain these explosions," 
says David Levin, a Teamsters for a Democratic 
Union (TDU) organizer, who has met with 
meatpacking workers in Pasco and Ft. Morgan. "One 
is just the incredible speedup and pressure in 
the workplace, and the safety hazards that come 
with that. Then there is the really abusive and 
disrespectful treatment of workers. You're made 
to work faster than you can safely, and then 
treated disrespectfully in this often racist way 
by management. When people are facing these 
problems as individuals, they seem 
insurmountable, but in combination it can be an explosive concoction."

Men and women from Mexico and Central America 
have long been making the trek north to 
Washington's Columbia River valley, a lush 
farming region where asparagus fields, orchards 
and vineyards provide seasonal work to immigrant 
laborers. A job at IBP represents a step up, as 
it is one of the few local year-round jobs 
available to a non-English speaker. Ninety 
percent of the plant's workers are immigrants: 
Most are from Latin America, while a significant 
minority are refugees from Laos, Vietnam and Bosnia.

Martinez, on the other hand, was born and raised 
in California, and applied to work at IBP after 
moving to Pasco in 1988. Compared with her 
previous jobs, "it was different," she says. 
"It's hard, hard work. You go home and you are 
always in pain. After three weeks, I was about to 
quit--I couldn't handle the work." It wasn't as 
if Martinez was unaccustomed to physical labor: 
She grew up in Fresno, the eleventh of twenty-two 
children of farmworker parents. A tomboy, she 
played football and boxed with her brothers, and 
beginning when she was 14, she would pick plums 
and table grapes from April to November. As a 
result she never finished school, and went on to 
a series of factory jobs. Today, at 45, she is 
sturdy-framed and energetic, and as she recalls 
her struggles with the company she slips easily 
from resoluteness to laughter, pausing to relish 
a particular moment--say, the day when the 
processing workers rattled the supervisors by 
loudly clanging their meat hooks against the 
conveyor belts all at once--and to note that "It 
was neat," or "It was so neat."

But meatpacking is indeed different, largely 
thanks to IBP. It was IBP that redesigned the 
modern meatpacking industry in the 1960s, 
reorganizing production to eliminate skilled 
labor, locating the plants in rural areas where 
unions were not a threat, slashing wages and 
speeding up the chain. "IBP set the trend and 
other companies have followed," says University 
of Kansas anthropologist Donald Stull, who has 
studied the industry for fifteen years. "They are 
all locked in this dance together; they all have 
to do the same kind of thing; and there really 
isn't any disincentive to keep doing them from 
the government." (Though to the extent that there 
are disincentives, IBP has been at the receiving 
end of them: The same year Martinez started in 
Pasco, OSHA proposed a $3.1 million fine against 
the company for safety violations in its Dakota 
City, Nebraska, plant--the second-largest penalty 
in the agency's history, though it was later 
reduced--and Congressman Tom Lantos lambasted the 
company as "clearly one of the most irresponsible 
and reckless corporations in America in terms of workers' health and safety.")

Martinez stuck to her job, despite the pain and 
despite the fact that the company had frozen 
wages at around $7 an hour years earlier, 
substituting small quarterly bonuses for raises. 
Employees were nevertheless made to work harder 
and harder. According to Ramon Moreno, who worked 
for twenty-one years in slaughter, beginning in 
1979, the chain speed more than doubled over 
those two decades. The Pasco plant was cited 
repeatedly by state investigators for safety 
violations. Although workers were members of 
Teamsters Local 556, it was not a strong presence 
in the plant. "We didn't know anything about the 
union," recalls Maria Chavez, another longtime IBP worker.

Martinez's first foray into union activism was a 
disappointment: During contract negotiations in 
1992, she joined a group of Pasco workers in an 
ultimately unsuccessful push for better pay and 
working conditions. "I swore I would never get 
involved with a union again," says Martinez. But 
in 1997, a different set of workers wrote a 
letter to the Teamsters international to complain 
about the local, and a Teamsters investigator, 
Joe Fahey, came to Pasco and met with a large 
group of workers. "People were crying, talking 
about being covered in diarrhea the entire shift 
because the supervisor wouldn't let them go to 
the bathroom," says Fahey, now president of 
Teamsters Local 912 in California and co-chair of TDU.

"That was the day we got our voices back," Pereya 
would say later. With help from TDU, Martinez, 
Pereya and other workers began organizing the 
plant, setting up a communication network inside 
and voting to change the local's bylaws. "We did 
huge actions inside," says Martinez, who was 
elected chief steward after the bylaws change. 
"We used to walk into the manager's office, 
during break, hundreds of us, with a petition 
over supervisor harassment. We used to pack that 
office like sardines." After the bruising 
contract campaign and strike, the Teamsters 
international put the local under trusteeship, 
removing Martinez from the steward's position. 
But she went to court and won her position back 
and subsequently was elected to head the local.

Since then, the union has increased the number of 
shop stewards and initiated a health and safety 
campaign; last year, workers won a $3.1 million 
judgment for unpaid time putting on and taking 
off equipment; and this year they filed a second 
such lawsuit. (The company appealed the first 
decision and issued a memo advising that workers 
were no longer required to remove their 
kill-floor frocks or other equipment in the 
cafeteria.) Workers went public with a videotape 
showing cattle being slaughtered alive, 
animal-rights groups were outraged and the state launched an investigation.

The union's biggest victory, says Maria Chavez, 
has been changing the climate inside the IBP 
plant. "We were fearful before this woman came," 
she says, referring to Martinez. "There was fear 
that if we said anything they would fire us. Now 
it's evident that the people aren't afraid."

The gaining of power by Pasco's workers, 
heartening as it may be, still pales in 
comparison with the concentration of power within 
the industry. Last year Tyson Foods purchased 
IBP, making Tyson/IBP the Death Star of the meat 
business: It controls 27 percent of the US beef 
market, 23 percent of the chicken market and 19 
percent of the pork market, with an annual 
revenue of roughly $24 billion a year. "It's too 
early to tell" what effect the merger might have 
on IBP's 32,500 production and maintenance 
workers, says the University of Kansas's Stull, 
but given that Tyson has a checkered labor record 
of its own, "I don't think things will get 
better. If anything, they'll get worse."

Certainly, it didn't help the workers who lost 
their jobs in Amarillo. The Amarillo IBP plant is 
significantly larger than the Pasco plant, 
employing 3,000 production and maintenance 
workers, and accordingly the chain runs even 
faster. Workers say the plant had been 
chronically understaffed for months before the 
strike. Recalls José Vazquez, who worked at IBP 
for eight years, up until the walkout, "When I 
started working there, there were fifteen 
chuck-boners on each line, and 380 chain speed 
was considered fast; you had to have sixteen or 
seventeen for that. Before we walked out, they 
were doing 400 an hour, with thirteen or fourteen 
chuck-boners." Last September, a group of workers 
approached management, threatening to quit if the 
staffing problem was not addressed, and asking 
that the company raise wages to the level of two 
other area meatpacking plants in order to better 
retain workers. When those discussions failed, 
the fifty or so workers involved were asked to 
leave the building, and hundreds of others 
followed them outside. IBP warned them to return 
to work or be fired and called the walkout "an 
unsanctioned protest over wages." The company 
fired them all several days later. Because the 
strike did not occur during contract 
negotiations, Teamsters Local 577 declined to 
sanction the walkout; local president Rusty Stepp 
told reporters there was nothing he could do for the wildcatting workers.

For several weeks, many of the fired workers 
installed themselves across the road from the 
plant like so many Texas bedouins, in a long 
string of tents, tarps, lawn chairs and pickup 
trucks. Yet their effort to put public pressure 
on the company did not meet with significant 
community support. "IBP just launched its public 
relations juggernaut and basically spun the 
walkout as a dispute over wages," says Jim Wood, 
one of a handful of Amarillo attorneys who tried 
to help the workers. "Really the issue was worker 
safety, and people who studied the issue saw 
that. Eventually the Catholic Church of Amarillo 
came out strongly in support of the workers, but 
by then people's minds were made up." Because 
Amarillo is predominantly Anglo, and most of the 
protesters were either Mexican-American or 
Asian-American, adds Wood, "there wasn't a lot of 
contact between them and the Anglo community."

Last October I spoke with workers outside the 
plant; it was clear that they were angry, they 
wanted their jobs back and they wanted their 
working conditions to improve. As had been the 
case in Pasco, Amarillo IBP workers were 
represented by a Teamsters local that many viewed 
as ineffective. But unlike in the Pasco strike, 
the Amarillo walkout had not been preceded by a 
sustained organizing effort inside the plant, and 
the five workers who formed an ersatz strike 
committee were not experienced leaders. Where 
Martinez and Pereya had a worker communication 
network organized by production line, the 
Amarillo workers had a bullhorn and a Peavey 
amplifier on the back of a pickup truck.

Representatives from a Justice Department 
community relations office in Dallas, the League 
of United Latin American Citizens and the union 
met with company officials to negotiate a 
back-to-work agreement, but with no workers or 
strong worker advocates present, the resulting 
agreement was weak, stipulating that the company 
would rehire fired workers on a "case-by-case 
basis," and that rehired workers would not be 
entitled to their old shifts or job-bidding 
seniority. "In my opinion they didn't negotiate 
anything, they just agreed to what the company gave them," says Vazquez.

Last April I returned to Amarillo and visited the 
offices of Medina y Medina translating, a small 
storefront in a down-market shopping plaza, and 
headquarters of Pioneros Para La Justicia, a 
group of current and former IBP workers, formed 
last December. There, Pioneros collective member 
Sonia Campos has been filing unemployment appeals 
and organizing meetings. She also fields 
questions from former workers who call or stop 
by, like Alex Telles, who showed up while I was 
there. Telles lost his job as a skinner because 
of the walkout, after twenty-two years with IBP. 
Since then, he says, he's been working temp jobs 
for Manpower, Inc. "It's been lousy," Telles 
says. "I get maybe three days of work a week from 
them. I've got applications all over town: 
warehouses, truck stops. I went to get food 
stamps and they wouldn't help me." With a wife 
who works in a nursing home and two teenage sons, 
says Telles, "we're just barely getting by."

At an evening meeting of thirty former and 
current IBP workers at St. Laurence Catholic 
Church, the stories were similar: People who'd 
been laid off were struggling to pay bills and 
applying for public assistance. Those who had 
been called back to work said that the company 
had hired more people, but that many of the new workers were inexperienced.

The Amarillo workers' prospects for repeating the 
successes of the Pasco local are less than rosy. 
Several years ago, Amarillo attorney Jeff 
Blackburn helped convene a meeting between a 
group of IBP workers and TDU's Joe Fahey, but it 
failed to spark the kind of internal organizing 
seen in Pasco. "There's been a continuously 
self-defeating cycle of spontaneous anger that 
gets expressed," says Blackburn. "Leaders that 
really aren't leaders get thrown into it, and 
then everybody gets demoralized." For her part, 
Campos plans to circulate a worker petition to 
decertify the Teamsters and designate Pioneros 
Para La Justicia as their bargaining 
representative. It's not hard to understand her 
disenchantment with the Teamsters--Local 577 
president Stepp, who earns $103,000 a year, seems 
to have little contact with the 2,000 members who 
work at IBP. But it is difficult to imagine 
Campos's pioneers waging a successful battle 
against IBP with no institutional support at all.

Stepp did not return phone calls for this story. 
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which 
(unlike TDU) has not expressed support for 
wildcatting workers in Ft. Morgan and Amarillo, 
provided a brief statement: "There were problems 
that led to a wildcat strike with IBP at Local 
577. The union has responded to these problems 
and continues to proactively address them." Last 
spring, representatives from the Teamsters 
international flew to Amarillo to meet with 
current and laid-off IBP workers. "They made 
promises," says Campos, "but after they left, 
they didn't return our phone calls."

While the Teamsters represent only a handful of 
the packing plants nationwide, the UFCW maintains 
by far the largest union presence in 
meatpacking--representing roughly 60 percent of 
slaughterhouse workers, according to UFCW 
spokesman Greg Denier. Individual locals vary, 
but in general the history of meatpacking unions 
during the second half of the twentieth century 
is a story of sharp decline. Once the old 
unionized firms gave way to IBP, says labor 
historian Roger Horowitz, the unions found 
themselves unable to organize the new, nonunion 
packers, and by the early 1980s concessionary 
bargaining was the norm: "The UFCW would persuade 
the company to sign a closed-shop agreement and 
get things like health insurance," but wages 
remained low, while chain speeds got higher and higher.

If events in Omaha and Pasco are any indication, 
that trend doesn't have to continue. But unions 
can't do it alone, says Martinez. "The 
humane-slaughter people and the food-safety 
people should work together; they'd have a lot of 
power," she says. "In the meat industry, both 
issues have to do with the chain. The chain goes 
so fast that it doesn't give the animals enough 
time to die. People don't have enough time to 
wash their knife if it falls on the floor." And 
tens of thousands of workers are injured every 
year. "I've been writing about it for fifteen 
years; a lot of people in the media have said the 
things I've said, and things haven't changed," says Stull.

Still, workers and industry critics hope that 
more consumers will come to appreciate the link 
between food safety and a safer workplace. The 
union campaigns in Pasco and the organizing drive 
in Omaha owe much of their success to their 
efforts to involve the community--particularly 
churches and local colleges--in their efforts. 
Home Justice Watch, a Texas-based group that 
works on worker safety, human rights and animal 
rights violations in slaughterhouses, has 
launched the Eat Rights campaign to focus 
consumer attention on these issues. "The same 
things that contribute to the contamination of 
the meat are what make it more likely that people 
are going to get hurt," says Eric Schlosser. "The 
only reason it's been allowed to continue is that 
people don't know. Even if you have no compassion 
for the poor and the illegal in this country, if 
you eat meat, or the people you love eat meat, you should care."

The way to change the industry is by "people 
being informed and spreading the word to the 
public," says Martinez. "The worst fear of IBP is 
workers being united. Now we're here, and they 
know I'm not in bed with them. You have to have 
them by their tail. I'm always pulling their tail."

More information about the Marxism mailing list