Perhaps you, like me, have by now grown weary of and even bored by the word "change." My feeling is, stop talking about it and bring it on. The interregnum between November’s election and January’s inauguration is not President-elect Obama’s fault, of course, but lately I’ve begun to think that revisiting this whole elect-then-wait deal might not be a bad idea. The British and Canadians don’t wait — why do we?
Well anyway — a change is gonna come and all that. And one of the changes of landscape the American meat industry will see over the next few years, I think, will be a resurgent labor movement. But before you dust off the old how-to-survive-a-strike handbook your attorneys gave you 30 years ago, consider that today’s United Food and Commercial Workers, which is our industry’s chief union, is not yesterday’s.
You might find that hard to believe. One of 2008’s most noteworthy union elections capped a long, ugly battle at Smithfield Foods’ plant in Tar Heel, N.C. The election gave UFCW a victory, but the Tar Heel battle was more a final echo of the past – that’s why it was so bitter -- than it was a call from the future. If you want an indication of the true future of labor-management debate and negotiation in our industry, the better example than Tar Heel is what happened this past fall at the Swift & Co. beef plant in Hyrum, Utah.
The union began talking to workers there after some other Swift plants (all of which are represented by UFCW) had been raided by black-suited, bulletproof-vested agents from the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Service (ICE) on the hunt for plant employees who might be working in this country without proper documentation. Union leaders made an effective case that should such a frightening raid occur in Hyrum, UFCW was the best hope the hourly employees had for protection and assistance, as UFCW had proven at the other Swift operations.
Both the union and Swift’s management share the opinion that these ICE raids disrupt operations (most raided plants lose at least 48 hours of production) and terrorize workers and that they must stop. The federal government cannot wage war against a legitimate industry. The immigration system is broken, yes, but punishing an industry for the failure of political leadership is stupid, unethical and sickening. Our government ought to be better than that.
Most company executives I’ve spoken with say they support the federal E-verify program for validating employee documentation – but they do so only reluctantly and only because there’s no other choice available. These executives don’t want to be responsible for policing who’s a citizen and who isn’t; they want to be responsible for running safe, efficient meat plants. Union leaders I’ve spoken with say they understand the industry’s need for immigrant labor — this need is woven throughout the industry’s history, after all. They say they also recognize the price pressure companies are under, not to mention the regulatory pressure from USDA. They understand how these forces impact wages and benefits. But there is still room to negotiate.
Safe, efficient meat plants are in everyone’s interest. The industry’s leadership – the leaders who wear suits and ties as well as the leaders who wear hardhats, hairnets and smocks — share the goal of a thriving, sustainable industry. Joe Hanson, president of UFCW, told me in October: "What good is it for us if a company goes out of business? That just hurts everybody." I think the change that has already begun in our industry is the change in attitude that has brought the union’s leadership and management to the table in, first, agreement.
So a change isn’t gonna come, not in the U.S. meat industry, because in terms of the union-management relationship it’s already here. Indeed, President Obama and, if confirmed, new Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis can make great us of the new template for labor-management relations our industry has established. If that isn’t a change from the past, and change we can believe in, I don’t know what is.
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