World’s Largest Meatpacker Busts Teamsters Reform Local

The world’s largest meatpacker, Tyson Foods, narrowly defeated Teamsters Local 556 in a decertification election on February 11—in a bitter setback for supporters of workers’ and immigrants’ rights. The 1,500 workers at Tyson Foods in Pasco, Washington had long been the activist base of Local 556—a militant and progressive Teamsters local led by Maria Martinez, a co-chair of Teamsters for a Democratic Union.

Local 556 members fought Tyson’s year-long union-busting campaign with solidarity from more than 90 Teamster locals and support from labor and community allies from the Pacific Northwest to Japan. But their spirited grassroots struggle was not enough to overcome the corporation’s intimidation tactics.

STRONG-ARM TACTICS

“This was a fight between a little local and one of the biggest, meanest, most anti-union corporations in the nation,” said Eric Schlosser, who’s covered Local 556 and Tyson for numerous publications. “It wasn’t a fair fight. Local 556 members should feel proud it was even close.”

First and foremost, this is a story of corporate union-busting at its worst. Tyson distributed anti-union flyers and videotapes, held frequent captive-audience meetings where workers were prohibited from speaking or asking questions, and threatened to close the plant if workers voted for the union.

This is standard operating procedure for union-busters. But in this case, Tyson was aided and abetted by the Teamsters union itself—specifically, officials from the administration of President James P. Hoffa, who prioritized a political campaign against union reformers over the interests of Teamster members.

REFORM STRONGHOLD

Local 556 reformers have been a thorn in the side to both Tyson management and the Hoffa administration. As rank-and-file Teamsters, Martinez and other TDU members organized a grassroots movement that challenged the authority of both management and the ineffectual local leaders.

After organizing a wildcat strike in 1999 and defeating a Hoffa-imposed trusteeship, Martinez and other TDU leaders were elected to local union office in 2000 and reelected in 2002, both times overwhelmingly defeating slates that were formed and backed by the Hoffa administration.

In office, Local 556 leaders organized rank-and-file Teamsters to challenge the speed-up and safety violations at the heart of the meatpacking industry.

The reformers organized job actions and built labor-community alliances, including a community group called Safe Work/Safe Food. Martinez spearheaded two class action lawsuits for more than $15 million in unpaid wages. When a Tyson worker lost his arm in a grisly accident in the plant in 2003, Local 556 activists proved that the company had illegally removed a critical safety mechanism, garnering the company a $61,500 fine.

Under reform leadership, Local 556 got involved for the first time in mobilizations for immigrants’ rights—organizing an Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride rally at Tyson’s gates. Local union members became active participants in their international union as well, consistently voting for reform slates in international elections. Martinez was the first Latina to run for IBT vice president.

Tyson first moved to bust Local 556 in 2002, and the Hoffa administration’s fingerprints were on that effort as well. Hoffa assigned a representative to Local 556 to recruit an opposition slate. Tyson intervened in the local election by banning Martinez from the plant during the campaign. Martinez ignored the ban and won the election. The Hoffa-backed candidate promptly circulated a decertification petition. Tyson rewarded him with a management position.

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After Local 556 defeated Tyson in a decertification election last year—the first time any local union has beaten the company in a decert—management appealed the election and escalated its union-busting attack.

Shortly after bargaining started, the company stopped dues checkoff. After months at the table, Tyson issued a final offer that included a wage freeze, health care concessions, no checkoff, and no union security.

LOCAL LEADERS UNDERMINED

In the meantime, Hoffa assigned a new representative who wrote a series of letters attacking the Local 556 leadership. This confidential union correspondence was then leaked to members to stir up opposition to the Local 556 leadership. From there the documents were passed on to management.

While the Hoffa administration busied itself attacking Local 556, Tyson was using its political clout to get the NLRB to order a rerun election—overruling the NLRB’s own regional director. In the second decertification election, Tyson took the fire the IBT had aimed at Local 556 reformers and redirected it against the Teamsters Union itself.

Management issued multiple flyers and mailed a videotape to every employee quoting the IBT’s attacks against Local 556 leaders. Tyson used quotes from the IBT to back up the company’s false accusations that Local 556 members faced layoffs and reduced hours because Local 556 had caused Japan to close its markets to U.S. beef.

Tyson also used the quotes to make the case that Local 556 leaders were responsible for the lack of progress in contract negotiations, not management, which refused to drop its demands for a wage freeze and other concessions.

One Tyson leaflet ended: “Can there be any question as to how the International Teamsters Union feels Maria Martinez and Local 556 have failed you? Vote NO to Local 556 on February 9, 10 and 11.”

With the company threatening to close the plant and the IBT undermining their local union, members voted 690-586 in favor of the company.

FUTURE UNCERTAIN

The future of Local 556 is now uncertain. The local has filed objections to the election with the NLRB. In the meantime, the IBT may move to merge or trustee the local.

“This vote was a step backwards, but we will never go all the way back,” said Martinez. “A lot of immigrant workers are afraid to speak up. Workers here organized and stuck together. We learned our rights and we learned to speak up. They can’t take that away.

“The IBT feels threatened when members get involved. It’s sad. Because when you find your voice as a worker, that’s the best thing there is.”