This Holiday Season, Workers in Poultry Plants Need a Union

"Our poultry need not be consumed at the cost of workers' dignity" write the authors. (Photo: AP/Nati Harnik)

This Holiday Season, Workers in Poultry Plants Need a Union

While some Americans will pay upwards of $12 a pound for a heritage breed bird this Christmas, Minnesota workers who toil year-round in poultry plants are struggling to survive.

Minnesota, ranked as the largest slaughterer of turkeys in the nation, has long been an epicenter of the American meatpacking industry. The state is home to 33 major meatpacking plants, and, with just over 12,000 workers in the sector, boasts the highest concentration of jobs in the industry nationwide. But over the past few decades, as plants began to crop up in rural areas and small cities far removed from the influence of urban unions, these jobs have grown less secure. Today, a mere nine plants in the state are organized.

It is clear that the rest stand to benefit from collective bargaining. The industry ranks as one of the most dangerous in the country, recording almost 39,800 nonfatal injuries nationwide--or 7.5 cases per every 100 full-time workers in 2008. Workers can also be exposed to toxic levels of pathogens and chemicals, like ammonia.

Minnesota factories are no exception to these safety hazards. At a plant operated by turkey giant Jennie-O in Melrose--a small city 100 miles northwest of Minneapolis--injuries are not uncommon. In 2006, for example, an employee was crushed to death while cleaning out a machine. Other workers report being harmed by excessive speeds on production lines, says Ahmed Ali, who advocates for employees at the Melrose plant as a Lead Staff Organizer at the Greater Minnesota Worker Center. According to Ali, lines often run at speeds that are double the industry averages, which can lead to repetitive motion injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome. Through a spokesperson, Hormel--Jennie-O's parent company--says that line speeds at the Melrose plant comply with government standards.

But Omer Hassan, a former worker at the Melrose plant, claims that excessive line speeds led him to develop a musculoskeletal injury that rendered his right hand inoperative. According to Hassan, he still suffers "severe pain" on his right side. Following the injury, he took time off to see a doctor and says he was denied pay for missing work. He was subsequently fired in August 2015, which has jeopardized his ability to provide for himself and his mother. As he told TalkPoverty, "It has been difficult for me and for my mom. I have always had a job and brought home a paycheck. That's all gone for now." Hormel did not comment on this specific case, but said that in the event of an injury, employees are given "suitable alternative duties" while they recuperate.

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These poor labor conditions extend beyond Melrose. Barbara, whose name has been changed to protect anonymity, is an employee of the Gold'N Plump chicken plant in St. Cloud. She says the production line there is like a "flowing, raging river." Workers who cannot keep up are asked to sign a warning letter or are even terminated on the spot. According to Barbara, those who request to use the restroom more than three times a month are also asked to sign a warning letter--a practice that would run contrary to state law, which requires an option for a bathroom break every four consecutive hours of work. Through a spokesperson, Gold'N Plump said that the company provides regularly scheduled breaks for workers and recognizes that "each person is unique, which may mean accommodating additional restroom breaks" for some. However, the company did not deny that it issues warning letters for additional bathroom use.

On top of these alleged abuses in the industry, wages are low. According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, in Kandiyohi, Meeker, Renville, and McLeod counties, annual median wages for slaughterers and meatpackers amount to $27,909, which is just above the federal poverty line for a family of four. By contrast, Hormel CEO Jeffrey Ettinger reportedly took home more than $13 million in total compensation in 2014.

Given these conditions, the need for stronger protections for workers is clear. In Watonwan County, workers at the Butterfield Foods chicken slaughter plant are represented by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1161. According to Darin Rehnelt, a representative for the union, UCFW Local 1161 has successfully negotiated grievance procedures to protect workers against unlawful termination, as well as nine paid holidays a year, time-and-a-half after eight hours, and double-time on Sundays. Rehnelt says that collective bargaining has also allowed workers to set up internal structures to increase safety. Union stewards monitor line speeds and labor conditions, and workers can share concerns with a health and safety committee. If laborers are injured, they have recourse to a union-provided attorney who specializes in workers' compensation law.

The striking contrast between the plants demonstrates some of the immediate benefits of unionization, such as increased wages and benefits. But on a broader level, unions are also key to ensuring economic and social mobility. According to the Center for American Progress, low-income children are more upwardly mobile in areas with higher rates of union membership. And unions also play a central role in combating income inequality; lower rates of unionization are associated with an increased share of income going to the wealthiest Americans.

Our poultry need not be consumed at the cost of workers' dignity. By building a strong labor movement at the company, state, and federal level, progressives can change a status quo predicated on giving workers a raw deal.

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