Stopping the Chain

More than 500 workers in the country's most dangerous occupation are walking out on their jobs -- and their union.

| Fri Oct. 12, 2001 3:00 AM EDT

For years, workers at the massive IBP meatpacking plant in Amarillo, Texas, have complained about low wages, unsafe working conditions, and unfair union representation. Now many of them fear that they may no longer have jobs at all: In response to a wildcat strike, the company has dismissed hundreds of workers and filed suit against others, claiming that they violated their contract by striking without the support of their union.

The workers hope that recent publicity about the safety hazards of meatpacking will help bolster their case. Meatpacking is considered one of the nation's most dangerous occupations, with employees suffering a higher rate of serious injury than workers in any other industry, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. (See "Fast Food Nation" author Eric Schlosser's account of the meatpacking industry in the July/August edition of Mother Jones.)

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In the 1970s, IBP led the way in an industrywide restructuring of slaughterhouse work that eliminated the need for skilled labor. Once one of the nation's better-paid industrial jobs, meatpacking now has some of the country's lowest wages and highest turnover rates. Workers at the Amarillo plant are demanding a wage increase, improved safety on the job, and a rehiring of all the strikers fired after the walkout. "The wage increase is so that we don't lose more employees. But the demands from the beginning were always about security and safety," says Jose Vazquez, an eight-year veteran of the plant and a spokesman for the strikers.

But the plant's union, Teamsters Local 577, has not supported the walkout. Workers say they set up meetings with management twice in September to discuss their grievances, but that union local president Rusty Stepp refused to attend. Stepp did not return phone calls for this article.

IBP says that by walking out without union sanction the workers violated their contract, giving the company grounds to terminate them. "There's nothing to negotiate since the contract, which the employees agreed to, was not up for negotiations until 2002," says spokesman Gary Mickelson.

But Vazquez says the issues required immediate attention, and on Sept. 18 the workers decided to take action without the union. Forty-seven IBP employees left their work stations that day, demanding a meeting with supervisors to discuss their grievances; instead they were ordered to leave the plant. Hundreds of additional workers have walked out in solidarity since. A group of striking workers and supporters, now numbering nearly 500, has set up camp in front of the plant. IBP has filed a temporary restraining order against 67 of the strikers and is suing for damages due to lost production.

IBP spokesman Mickelson says the plant has hired 300 replacement workers; meanwhile, more than 500 of the strikers are trying to get their jobs back by bypassing the union and local management and appealing directly to IBP's headquarters in South Dakota. Attorneys representing the workers are organizing meetings with corporate officials, with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the US Department of Justice serving as mediators. They hope to resolve the issues by working out amendments to the contract rather than turning to the courts.

The workers, meanwhile, remain firm. "We will stay on strike as long as it takes," Vazquez says.

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