The Bitter Struggle to Unionize NC Poultry Processors
March 21, 2006
North Carolina is one of the major chicken breeding states (one of 17 southeastern states, especially Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi as of 2001) and has several chicken processing plants. Chicken processing is low paying, messy, and dangerous work. In response workers have attempted to unionize. The sharpest struggle has been going on for about 15 years at a Case Farms plant in Morganton in the western part of the State, involving mostly Guatemalan immigrant workers. In spite of a successful unionization vote, Case Farms refused to recognize the Union and eventually succeeded in wearing out the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA). Later the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an affiliate of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) was asked to get involved. Through illegal tactics the company won the second union election.
Case Farms is a small chicken processor and wholesaler founded in 1949, based in Morganton, and has about 1200 employees. It had about $237 million dollars of sales in 2004 (Business & Company Resource Center database). It began as a small family operated business in the 60’s and was later bought by former Perdue Farms executive Thomas Shelton in 1986. After Shelton took over, the Company began to rapidly expand, growing by 50% between 1992 and 1995, and added 580 employees. Its main holdings were a plant in Winesburg, Ohio selling Amish Country Brand chicken to retailers, and the Morganton plant, which sells to institutional buyers like schools and hospitals.
Chicken processing was vertically integrated, meaning that companies control the chickens from egg to meat packaging, mainly from the mid-30’s to the 50’s. Until the 1980’s meatpacking was mostly unionized, but after than unionization decreased 50% as line speed likewise increased by 50%. In 1986 the Supreme Court allowed mergers of meatpackers.
Morganton is a small town of around 18,000 people. In 1990 of the 75,000 residents in the county there were only 283 Latino residents, none of whom were Guatemalan (Raleigh News & Observer, November 30, 1996). In 1990 1% of the State’s 6.6 million people were Latino, but today there are 150-200,000, many coming from Texas for higher wages (Rural Migration News). At the time there was only one unionized company in the county and only about 4% of the State’s workforce had a union.
Originally the plant, which was never popular with the town, employed mainly black workers. In 1990 or early 1991 Case Farms seemingly decided to focus on recruiting Guatemalan workers, possibly because they were thought to be easier to control than Mexican immigrants and would not want to take as many holidays as Mexicans, since they could not return to Guatemala easily. In Guatemala there was a genocide against highland Maya, so, as one manager told Leon Fink (author of ‘The Maya of Morganton’, which is about the Case Farms unionization struggle),
“They’re here as political refugees. If they go home, they get shot.”
Katherine Harbinson, a black former Case Farms worker, who began working at the plant after high school, told the San Diego Union-Tribune (November 2, 1997) that
“The supervisors treated the American workers real bad to give them a reason to quit. Most of them did.”
According to the Greensboro Justice Fund (fall 1998) the poultry industry has buses from Guatemala to New Mexico, from which the workers are then taken to Eastern poultry plants. Fifteen vans were sent to Immokalee, Florida (also see article on farm-worker organizing in Immokalee in Alliance! fall 2005 issue) and it advertised in Texas and California. It advertised indoor and “clean” work (The Nation, December 1, 1997). One worker says he was told in January 1995 that he could make $7.50 an hour and work as many as 70 hours a week (Raleigh News & Observer, November 30, 1996). Recruiters got $50 dollars from Case Farms and another $50 dollars from those they recruited.
Human Resources Director Ken Wilson told the Union-Tribune that Case Farms routinely checks that its workers still have valid worker permits. Workers told the paper than the first such check since mid-1995 was in 1997 and they thought it was to intimidate them. There is an INS office 90 miles away, but it took 7 years or longer before they visited Morganton, while the influx of immigrant workers began. As of 1999, there were 8 INS officers checking employers in the State, one inspector to about 16,000 businesses. The INS told Migration News that
“The chance of being encountered by the INS, with our resources, is slim.”
Between 1994 and 1998 no one was fined, and the biggest fine against an employer in North Carolina was $15,000 in 1992 against Barnes Farming Corp. Employers are allegedly more afraid of the Social Security Administration and IRS fines, triggered by undocumented workers trying to pay the social security payroll tax based on illegitimate social security numbers.
Many of these workers come from Huehuetenango, a city of 800,000 with a landscape similar to Morganton, with low wages and a large proportion of native Mayan and mestizo citizens (Raleigh News & Observer, November 30, 1996). By the 1990’s most of the workers were Guatemalan highland Mayas, from six ethnic groups speaking four Mayan languages, Q’anjob’al, Awakateko, Ki’ich’e, and Mam. Many do not speak Spanish or English or the other Mayan languages, and are illiterate, fragmenting the workforce. Part of the reason they are able to resist the Company is because the workers created community, social networks and brought their families to Morganton. They created mutual-aid societies, soccer teams, and gather at the local Catholic church, St. Charles Borromeo.
What the new workers found at Case Farms was work paying $6.15 an hour and at most $6.35 an hour. The Union-Tribune put wages at $6.85 an hour in 1997, with health benefits after three months of work, and a week long vacation and 5 paid holidays per year. Meat processing is dangerous work and often causes repetitive motion injuries. One worker told the Union-Tribune that his wrists were sore after months of repetitively cutting chicken shoulders at the rate of 28 per minute but he could not gain a transfer, causing permanent damage. One 5-year off and on worker, with lots of shallow scars from the cutting, was fired for discarding a bone on the floor.
Worker Juan Ignacio Montes told Laborers for JUSTICE (August 12, 1996) that
“At the end of the day my hands and arms are so sore because the processing line is moving so quickly. I don’t even have time to sort out the chickens.”
One former worker, Felix Rodriguez, says his wrists were swollen after his first day at the plant, very painful the second, and on the third he had trouble holding a knife to do his job (The Nation, December 1, 1997). Francisco Ramirez told Laborers that
“My co-worker, Juan Lopez, was forced to continue working even when his wrist swelled up to the size of a grapefruit because of repetitive carpal [tunnel] syndrome” and “We work eight-hour shifts with only one bathroom break.”
Repetitive injuries were encouraged by the lack of job rotation. Workers were put to work “with no formal training” in at least some cases. Workers say the Company clinic doesn’t treat workers properly. Felix Rodriguez says the Company nurse could only offer aspirin and a massage to treat his wrists and that he had to wait a year for a transfer to another position in the plant. He also says carbon dioxide concentrations in the plant were dangerous, causing eye irritation and dizziness. Former Case Farms worker Santos Mejia Vicente told The Nation that
“If you worked too long there, you got sick. Of course, the machines break. Can you imagine the humans? The humans break too.”
Human Resources Director Ken Wilson called the charges lies by LIUNA.
On top of this, the pay was less than he had been promised by labor recruiters. Workers were illegally required to buy their own protective equipment such as gloves, boots, and hairnets. The plant is kept at 45° F to prevent spoiling.
Problems with Case Farms were one of the reasons the US Department of Labor began its first ever national survey of poultry plant regulatory compliance, in October and November 1997. Out of the 174 existing plants, 51 were surveyed, and over 60% were violating the overtime rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Over 60% were not paying overtime pay to chicken catchers who worked over 40 hours per week. Chicken catchers go to farms to catch the chickens for slaughter. The relevant industry association, the National Broiler Council (broilers are chickens raised for meat), said the results were biased because of regulatory changes, since chicken catchers hadn’t been eligible for overtime, being classified as agricultural instead of industrial workers, for 60 years previously. More than 50% of the plants did not pay for work-related preparatory and clean up work (as much as 35-45 minutes of free work, reports the Greensboro Justice Fund’s (GJF) fall 1998 newsletter), more than 30% did not pay workers during brief breaks or when the machinery was shut down for maintenance, and 54% illegally required payment for workers’ protective equipment, some profiting by raising the price they passed on to the workers. The price was as much as 50% more than the cost to the company (GJF fall 1998). The Department’s Wage and Hour Division proceeded to try to get hundreds of thousands of dollars reimbursed by the guilty companies. Meatpackers on average spend up to $3000 dollars to recruit and train workers, who usually start with wages of $10-12,000 per year and can make up to $25,000 dollars per year (Rural Migration News). In some plants there were no bathroom breaks (GJF fall 1998). UFCW called the poultry industry “an outlaw industry.”
OSHA found that 40% of worker injuries were back problems, 10% cumulative trauma, 15% bone contusions and fractures, and 10% cuts and lacerations. Activists were suspicious of the low number of cumulative trauma injuries found and the lack of respiratory problems. For example, in February 1998 nine poultry workers in Florida had to go to the emergency room after coughing up blood. OSHA planned to keep tabs on injury rates by “its overall plan to partner with industries having the highest injury and illness rates” (National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, February 12, 1998). One of the worst job accidents in State history was a fire in 1991 at the Imperial Foods Products chicken processing plant in Hamlet, which killed 25 people.
The Guatemalan immigrants are a work-force aware of the need to struggle. One of the most militant workers, fired in 1997 and one of two hunger strikers for 124 days in 1996, is Felix Rodriguez. He told The Nation (December 1, 1997):
“If we didn’t offer our lives nothing would change.”
An abrupt line speed-up and night shift pay cut in September 1991 resulted in 20 workers walking out. In 1993 there was a work stoppage and many were arrested.
Three workers attempted to discuss their grievances with the plant manager in May 1995. They were ignored and therefore refused to go back to work butchering chickens. They were fired and arrested as trespassers. That Sunday, Mother’s Day, workers met at the St. Charles Church and decided to strike. One leader, Luis Alberto Gonzalez says:
“I was scared and I was angry” about the arrests, “because they were treating people of my race with so much disrespect” (The Nation).
In response the following Monday 300 workers staged a walkout and a three-day strike. LIUNA organizers were in northeastern North Carolina trying to organize processors in Lewiston-Woodville and Robersonville, so they approached the Morganton workers. LIUNA has about 750,000 members working in construction, building maintenance, food services, healthcare, and office work. LIUNA organizer Patrick Moran told the News & Observer that
“It wasn’t like you had to spend time talking to each of them to convince them. They were definitely ready to run.”
Workers’ grievances were more about safety and lack of respect from management than over the low wages.
Only two months later the workers voted to unionize, 238 for and 183 against organizing. A week later the Company challenged the results and held off recognizing the Union for years. Case Farms accused the Union of increasing ethnic tensions by producing a leaflet saying that the Company fired many Amish workers in Ohio so they could be replaced by Latinos at lower wages, throwing chicken parts at Company supporters, and saying it could report some workers to immigration authorities. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) twice upheld the union election, as did a Federal judge. During this time there were small actions such as work stoppages and a two week strike in August 1995.
Companies often replace resistant Guatemalan workers with Korean strikebreakers (GJF, fall 1998). December 12, 1995 a three-member NLRB panel supported a hearing officer’s recommendation that the Union be certified as representing the plant’s workforce. March 7, 1996 the panel found the Company guilty of violating the National Labor Relations Act and by refusing to negotiate with LIUNA and ordered it to do so. The Company appealed to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. August 8th all but 50 of the plant’s 450 workers struck over the Company’s refusal to negotiate, supported by the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. October 23, 1997 the Company lost its appeal. In 1998 the Supreme Court ruled against Case Farms.
Despite the Company’s stalling, the Union was credited with increasing wages from $6.35 to $6.85 dollars an hour, reducing line speeds, and cleaner floors, which had been dangerously covered in grease and chicken blood. Felix Rodriguez and his co-workers cut wings and drum sticks, so they set the pace and could stop the whole line:
“Any time there was an abuse, we stopped working” (The Nation).
After he was fired workers tried to have actions every two weeks, and this resulted in improvements, such as a 70 cent wage rise. Simultaneously there was a Case Farms boycott by Ohio Citizen Action and in Minnesota. LIUNA picketed the headquarters of the Bank of New York in Manhattan, Case Farm’s biggest lender. In April 1996 a thirty-member delegation from the National Farmworker Ministry came to speak to workers. Management refused to talk, and when they prayed at the plant one evening, they were watched by Company security and State Police with a riot control dog. Workers who spoke to them during a break another day said that if the Company retaliated against workers there would be a shutdown of the plant.
Between 1998 and 1999 there were negotiations and the Company was found guilt of not negotiating in good faith because of illegal labor practices. In May 1999 there was a one day lockout by the Company and three days later it ended its recognition of LIUNA. LIUNA spokesman Zack Matus told the Bureau of National Affairs (April 27, 2001) that this occurred as a final contract was nearing approval and it was after Case Farms circulated a petition against the union. LIUNA appealed to the NLRB. Ken Wilson, Director of Human Resources for the Company, said the lockout was
‘to “apply economic pressure to the union and employees”’
after LIUNA rejected two contract proposals during 15 months of negotiation. Wilson said the Company returned to negotiation without an NLRB order for its own reasons. He said the Company withdrew union recognition because a majority of workers signed a petition against it. The Union rejected a contract because it did not offer enough of a pay raise (Migration News).
Courts forced Case Farms back to the negotiating table in 2001. The Appeals Court approved of a settlement April 17th between the Company and the NLRB to end the NLRB’s contempt lawsuit. Under the settlement the Company and LIUNA’s National Poultry Workers affiliate would begin negotiating, with a three month time during which no lockouts or withdrawal of union recognition were allowed. There had been no pay raises since 1997, so all employees also received $200 dollars. LIUNA estimated this to cost about $100,000 dollars to cover about 500 current employees. The settlement’s provisions had to be posted and read to all employees in English and Spanish within 10 days. The fine for violating the settlement during the next year was set at $25,000 dollars to cover a compromised agreement on the cost of the NLRB’s lawyer fee.
According to The Nation, LIUNA was not prepared for the Case Farms campaign, because it was under government scrutiny and it was used to organizing construction sites by gaining neutrality agreements in return for offering safety training, pensions, and other benefits. During the 90’s LIUNA was being reformed after accusations that it was tied to organized crime nationally. One “union insider” told the The Nation that
“They [LIUNA] had no plan, no perception of the need and no ability to sustain the staffing” and would “sustain our relationship with the workers for another month” by sending “another organizer.”
A “Morganton activist” said:
“I really feel like we’ve been toyed with. These are people who should know what commitment is about, but have been unwilling to commit, people who should know what sacrifice is about, but have been counting pennies.”
LIUNA said the Company was the problem. Case Farms eventually tired out, so LIUNA left Morganton in December 2001 after donating funds to the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (now called Interfaith Worker Justice) to create the Western Carolina Workers’ Center, which still exists. The Workers’ Center educates workers and the community in western North Carolina about their legal rights and helps them exercise those rights.
Things were still happening a year after LIUNA ended its support. According to Francisco Risso, director of the Center, flyers and petitions were circulated, workers struck, and complaints were sent to government officials. The petitions were for raises, slower line speeds, and against the worst supervisors. Work was stopped to resist unjust terminations and line speed. The workforce had many grievances, especially over line speed and disrespect from management, and so people began again looking for union support.
Around May 2005 they contacted the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU), an affiliate of UFCW, and organizers were quickly sent to consult with workers. RWDSU represents workers at about 20 Southern poultry processing plants. A committee of workers was formed and a petition for unionization was circulated. This worked quickly and by July 2005 about 70% of the employees had signed union cards and the NLRB was asked to stage a vote on unionization. Case Farms brought in 6 Latino union busters, some of whom still work at the plant in management after the vote, distributed flyers, and required workers to attend anti-union meetings. The vote was held September 2, 2005, and failed by a vote of 296 against and 225 to support union representation and will not be appealed. After the vote several workers were unfairly laid off, according to Risso. Six unfair labor practice charges were lodged against Case Farms and are currently being litigated. According to fork lift operator Abelardo Portillo,
“The company did a lot of intimidation and made lots of promises to workers that gave them votes, but we’ll see if they keep their promises” (Center press release).
Another election can’t be held for a year, and organizers haven’t decided about a future election yet. Thirteen-year plant worker Francisco Aguirre says the experience empowers the workers, despite the formal loss:
“Once the union has been here, it never leaves, we will fight back” (Center press release).
UFCW is still interested in working with Case Farms workers and Kevin Blair, a former organizer of the Smithfield Foods campaign in North Carolina, thinks
“the workers at Case Farms can win unions at all three plants [in Morganton and Goldsboro, North Carolina and in Winesburg, Ohio] if we are able to put a broad community-based campaign together.”
Other poultry plants in North Carolina are organized by UFCW, including a turkey processor, House of Raeford, in Raeford.
The Western Carolina Workers’ Center can be contacted at:
PO Box 667
Morganton, North Carolina 28680
Phone: 828 432 5080
Case Farms of NC Inc. can be contacted at:
PO Box 308
Morganton, North Carolina 28680
Phone: 828 438 6900