With the exception of the long, ugly battle for labor representation at the Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, N.C., finally concluded last year, the last big, contentious confrontation in the industry over a labor contract occurred in the late 1980s in Dakota City, Neb., at the IBP headquarters operation there. Before that was the community-rending Hormel strike in Austin, Minn., in 1985 – 25 years ago. Not much longer before that, in the 1970s, labor strikes in the industry sometimes turned fatally violent; people got killed.
Those days are gone, thankfully. As my MEAT & POULTRY colleague Steve Kay said to me recently, “The combat of the past is in the past.” There are several reasons for the change. Beginning in the early 1990s, the industry’s attention got distracted by pathogen control, food safety and the regulatory overhaul of HACCP. More than one company collapsed and disappeared as a result of a food-safety recall. Meanwhile, raids at meat plants by the federal government to round up “illegals” put company management and organized labor on the same side: the raids were devastating to both. Somewhere along the line the management at certain companies realized that making plant jobs easier with ergonomic improvements improved productivity and yield. A new desire to control employee turnover was another change. For its part, the industry’s chief union, the United Food and Commercial Workers, gradually came to understand that the industry’s fate was its fate. A financially healthy meat company tended to be the best employer.
Commentators sometimes point out organized labor’s current weakness compared to the past. In the 1940s, labor unions represented 36 percent of the American workforce; today the portion has been reduced to about 12.4 percent, and nearly 37 percent of that is in the public sector. But UFCW remains strong in the meat industry. More than 40 percent of the industry’s largest plants operate under a UFCW contract. The union’s voice can still be powerful and persuasive.
That’s why, with the combat of the past in the past, now is the time for the industry’s progressive leadership and the union’s progressive leadership to work together. The biggest issues presently facing the industry – food safety, immigration reform, building exports and environmental hazards, as well as in-plant matters such as productivity and yield – bridge the management-union divide. They cannot be meaningfully addressed from only one side. It is ridiculous for an industry leader to walk in to a senator’s office to discuss labor issues, including immigration, without a union leader at the same meeting.
The American Meat Institute is now promoting sustainability as the industry’s new cause and theme. Here’s a chance to work together, for sustainability has to include the workforce and the communities the industry operates in, which means sustainability must include the union. Here’s another: exports. I’ve heard that UFCW is willing to risk to wrath of its protectionist brother unions to promote U.S. meat exports even if that might mean more free trade agreements, because more meat exports means more meat jobs. More exports also mean a stronger meat economy and thus better profits.
I’m not naïve. UFCW and industry executives will still sharply disagree about pay and benefits, about how best to reform immigration law, and about card verification for union representation. But there can be agreement to disagree on certain issues while there is cooperation on others. And cooperation, at this point, is in everyone’s interest.
If that’s asking too much, then at least let there be clear communication. Just ask Tyson Foods about the benefits of that. The cooperative ergonomic program the company and UFCW inaugurated 20 years ago has succeeded beyond even the most optimistic dreams of either side. We need more of those, and not just in ergonomics.