Virginia poultry workers under attack by Cargill

March 2018 Poultry

Poultry workers and their supporters rallied in Harrisonburg, Va., in April 2017. (Jesse Knadler / WVTF Radio

By HUGH STEPHENSON

 While teachers in West Virginia were occupying the state capitol building and continued their wildcat strike for increased wages and better health care, a Cargill poultry processing plant in nearby Dayton, Va., pursued its campaign to deny the right of plant workers to organize a union.

Cargill is an international food conglomerate that in 2016 was found guilty of violating the rights of Muslim workers in its Colorado operation. Cargill recently fired three union activists from its Dayton facility. The firings are just the latest in the company’s push to keep the Dayton plant union free. The company routinely intimidates staff to prevent employees from becoming pro-union and has retained the services of Peter List and Kulture Consulting—a notorious anti-union advisory company.

The recent firings are not the first time that Cargill retaliated against employees it deemed to be problematic. According to a local television station, WHSV, Wilfredo Flores’ job was terminated for doing nothing more than publicly describing conditions inside the processing plant. After injuring his hand while at work, Flores was informed by Cargill management that he was no longer employed. Flores now works with United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 400 (UFCW), in its drive to win a union contract at the plant.

Ernestina Castillo, one of the recently fired employees, worked at Cargill for 14 years and injured her hand on the job (an all too common occurrence for poultry workers). Management traditionally moves an injured employee to another position on the line or provides training for other tasks. However, Castillo was seen wearing a union shirt by management and consequently lost her job. More and more workers are wearing union shirts on the job to show their solidarity.

Dangerous working conditions and line speed-up (the act of increasing the processing speed of plant machinery to increase company profits) are two of the biggest complaints that workers have against Cargill. As a result of Cargill’s practices, broken bones, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other injuries occur. In addition, it is reported that Cargill often denies workers’ compensation to injured staff. One trick used by Cargill is to intimidate employees who speak only Spanish into signing a form written in English. The form denies all culpability by Cargill.

Workers who are able to avoid physical injury are subject to job burnout due to long working hours (not always compensated) and line speed-up. Burnout results in frequent staff turnover. This turnover, not coincidently, makes unionizing more difficult and further suppresses already low wages.

Workers have reported that company management engages in dirty practices, such as spreading petty personal rumors among employees in order to divide workers and make unionizing difficult. Management also routinely warns new workers to keep clear of pro-union workers.

At recent pro-worker rallies held outside the Dayton plant, Cargill locked the building doors to block workers from joining the rally while on their break. Of course, locked doors are a danger to all inside the building should a fire or other emergency occur. Plant supervisors have formed lines to watch and scare workers at the events, and as the workers returned to work, the managers have removed from their hands the union support cards given out by rally organizers.

Nevertheless, despite company intimidation, workers’ support for the union continues. At the end of February, community activists, church leaders, and the UFCW aided the recently fired workers and filed unfair labor practice charges against Cargill with the National Labor Relations Board. Results are pending.

You can follow the Cargill plant workers’ fight for a union by visiting the following Facebook sites: https://www.facebook.com/justiceforpoultryworkers/ https://www.facebook.com/shenandoahvalleyreds/