UPDATE on Union Victory at Case Farms

Foto del grupo, 2008-06-14

Members of UFCW Local 880 are on strike against Case Farms in Winesburg, Ohio. The strike began on 2008-07-17, at 10 a.m., as over a hundred workers poured out of the plant. The owners did not bargain in good faith, fired union organizers, and used threats to keep workers from supporting the union. Workers rejected management's last offer by a vote of 200 to 14. At last count, 179 workers were on strike. Contributions for strike support can be sent to MIGUATE, 818 Boulevard, Dover, OH 44622. Contributions made payable to Hispanic Ministries of Tuscarawas County are tax deductible. Click here to listen to Richard's podcast about this organizing drive.

A Union Victory at Case Farms

For thirteen years, my wife, Laura Yeomans, and I together with a small group of friends have been working with a group of Latino immigrants here in Tuscarawas County, Ohio. At first, they were working at Case Farms of Ohio, Inc., a chicken processing plant in Winesburg. Case Farms has two sister plants in North Carolina that had previously recruited a Guatemalan workforce from the migrant labor circuit. See Leon Fink, The Maya of Morganton: Work and Community in the Nuevo New South (Univ. of NC Press: 2003, ISBN 0-8078-5447-6). Coincidentally, Case Farms of Ohio had recently defeated a union organizing attempt by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Local 880. UFCW represents the workers at Park Poultry in nearby Canton, Ohio. The wage difference of two to three dollars between the union and non-union plants was not enough to persuade workers to support the union. Soon, the English speaking workers who had supported the union at Case Farms were out, and Salvadorans and Guatemalans from the North Carolina plants were in.

We formed an informal group called Hispanic Support Group (HSG). We organized social events to allow the immigrant and native communities to mingle, and to distribute health and legal information. I discovered that distribution of Spanish language written materials had little effect in an immigrant community with limited literacy, and spoke native Mayan languages (with Spanish as a second language). Soon we organized volunteer English classes and religious services, both Catholic and Protestant.

Meanwhile, UFCW did not give up the organizing drive. Its lead staff organizer, Tim Mullins, "salted" into the chicken plants. He got to know the immigrant workers as co-workers. He learned Spanish.

By 1997, HSG leaders and area clergy felt the immigrant community had grown so that a more formal organization, with paid staff, was needed. We incorporated Hispanic Ministries of Tuscarawas County, Inc. (HMTC), as a 501(c)(3) organization. We received grants from Catholic and Protestant denominations, employed a coordinator, and increased the number and types of classes and activities. I served as one of the presidents of HMTC. Two Kent State University graduate students produced a documentary movie about the Hispanic immigration to Tuscarawas County, and the community's adjustment. It is called 2000 Miles North.

HMTC suffered a turnover of paid staff that made it difficult to develop long term projects. In my opinion, the principal problem was that immigrants needed to rely on any bilingual person they knew for transportation to and translation at medical visits. As the immigrant community continued to grow, the demand for health services quickly outpaced the abilities of even the most experienced staff. As a board member, I worked with coordinators to have the strength to say no when immigrants called for rides to the doctor, dentist or even the hospital, but it is just too hard for anyone in a caring position to say no to someone who needs medical help, and depends on their only bilingual friend to take them.

In Morganton, North Carolina, the Laborers International Union won a union election at a Case Farms plant. The company and union, however, failed to agree on a first contract. Even with a labor-church coalition and a national corporate campaign (led by the National Immigrant Worker Justice Coalition in Chicago), Case Farms would not negotiate, and eventually got the union decertified.

Since our last coordinator resigned in 2003, HMTC has not employed any new staff. Fortunately, St. Joseph's Catholic Church, with support of the Immigrant Worker Project, filled the void for coordinating English classes, the new computer and literacy classes, and other programs and activities for the immigrant community. St. Joseph's Catholic Church now employs my wife as Pastoral Associate for Hispanic Ministries. Laura is also an HMTC Board member. She provides support for the Spanish language congregation at St. Joseph's, leads a women's group, assists victims of domestic violence, coordinates a baptism class, and continues the individual services that are so often needed.

Laura and I made several trips to Guatemala between 2001 and 2006. These trips included language instruction for us, and visits to the hometowns and families of our Guatemalan friends. We carried letters, photos and a few small gifts. We brought back letters, small gifts (but not living plants or traditional medicines), photos and a wedding ring. These visits bonded us to our friends, and we made an effort to visit the homes of our union leaders.

Guatemala's largest source of foreign currency is the flow from their immigrant workers in the US to their families in Guatemala. We could see that the families with "paisanos" working in the US had shoes on their feet and children who went to school. Over the years, we could see signs of development that came from the people up, instead of from the top down. You can see my photos starting at: http://www.taterenner.com/guat06.htm.

SweatFree Community Event Photo

Between 2001 and 2004, he had other long treks on twisty dirt roads through the mountains. Our view of the fantastic mountain scenery was completely unobstructed by guardrails. On returning from one visit to Aguacatan, I noticed that as we approached Huehuetenango City, the roads became paved. Business construction was active. I realized that we hardly had any immigrants from Huehuetenango, but we had hundreds from towns like Paxixil, Aguacatan and Canilla. The paved roads in Huehuetenango meant that its businesses had access to the markets. Paxixil did not. Its young men had to travel to find regular employment. Many traveled to the United States. Myself, I consider our current immigration laws, in the context of the worldwide disparity of resources, to be a sin comparable to the slavery of two centuries ago. We have found a way to place millions of working people with dark skin in a class with reduced legal protections. Indeed, the popular nomenclature is to call them "illegal" -- a label not used for slaves. Our system compels them to assume false identities just to work to support themselves and their families. It was not always like this in America. Until the 1964 Immigration and Nationalities Act, the typical immigrant from Latin America could just apply for legal status. Rosa Parks was an "illegal" bus rider. But we do not use that label for her. We recognize today that the segregation laws themselves were racist. We also recognize that civil rights leaders had to organize and suffer in a nonviolent struggle to reveal the racism and persuade our representatives to change the law.

A group of Guatemalans who graduated from the HMTC English classes, formed their own group, MIGUATE (Mayas, Inmigrantes, GUATEmaltecos). MIGUATE wanted their own space. They rented a store front in Dover, Ohio, from funds they collected themselves. HMTC had some money left, and made that available to MIGUATE. HMTC is now the fiscal agent for MIGUATE, and grants it receives from the local and national Campaign for Human Development (CHD). UFCW Local 880 also contributes to MIGUATE's rent. MIGUATE now has a fully stocked computer lab, regular computer classes in Spanish, AA meetings, classes on filing tax returns, trips to immigrants rights rallies and social events. They are linked with other immigrant groups around Ohio through the Ohio Immigrant Network (RIO, for the Spanish acronym for Red de Inmigrantes de Ohio) and the Immigrant Worker Project. They brought Baldemar Velasquez from the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) to speak in Dover. They now provide rides to dentists and doctors, and even help translate so their paisanos can get the services that make our whole community healthier. Directly because of their devotion to service, my wife has enough free time to spend some evenings at home.

In 2004, the UFCW drive reached a card majority. They petitioned for representation. Case Farms resisted the election, but the NLRB eventually determined the bargaining unit and set an election. Management hired an outside "consultant" to defeat the drive. Management eventually resorted to threats: that they would resist a contract, call immigration, or even close the plant. Management also slowed down the line, a worker demand for the sake of safety. From my home visits, I could sense that women workers were more often affected by the threats, and reluctant to talk with me about their voting plans. The union lost by a vote of 109 to 94. A few weeks later, Case Farms sped up the line again. Of five workers whose photos appeared in a union flyer, all five were soon fired or otherwise left. One won a NLRB unfair labor practice case. The next year, a union drive at another chicken processing plant in the area, Gerber Poultry, also failed by a similar margin. Conditions did not improve.

UFCW now works more closely with the MIGUATE leaders for the organizing drive. Indeed, the local organizers shunned a new national UFCW organizer so they could keep the drive local and organic.

In 2007, Tim and the other MIGUATE members, the union drive had a card majority again. This time, however, the workers had a stronger bond of affinity with their leadership working for the union and the drive. From my home visits, I could tell that support for the union was definitely higher now. Some of the workers told me that the union would win big, and 80% of the guys were voting yes -- even one wearing a simple "vote no" t-shirt handed out by management. The threats were back, but had less sting this time. The workers learned to lie to management about their voting plans. Tim later chided me that all my home visits were superfluous. The union had tabs on all the workers and how they were voting. They expected to win 2 to 1. On May 25, 2007, the vote finally came in -- 192 for the union, 99 against, just as the guys predicted.

Management made a few missteps. Workers remembered how the line sped up after the 2004 vote. They remembered how the company fired workers for unjust causes. Also, they were upset that the company did not pay them for the time between when the shift starts and when the line starts. They typically miss half an hour of pay over this every day. When the line breaks down, the company puts all the workers off the clock, but requires them to wait for the line to start again.

Union rally at Case Farms

In hindsight, I learned a few lessons, too. There is a limit to what us outsiders can do for the development of immigrant workers. We can be supports, but they have to lead their own campaigns. Obviously, reaching out to every group was important. The biggest lesson, however, is persistence. In May 2007, at a rally in front of Case Farms, I met Lonnie who told me about his first visits 20 years ago with the Amish bishops. He hoped to compare union organizing with church organizing. He thinks now, though, that bringing a woman organizer with him was not helpful. The Amish voted no, and the drive had to wait until the Amish found better paying jobs in the mid 1990's. It is ironic that Case Farms brought the Guatemalans in to prevent union organizing, and now that strategy finally back-fired. It was ethnic and inter-ethnic solidarity that finally pushed the union to victory. We had relived the story told in the movie Matewan. It took 20 years for UFCW Local 880 to win this campaign. It took 12 years of organizing with Latinos, and two union election campaigns. The company's threats and anti-union campaigns certainly made it harder and longer.

Our work is not done. We are planning for leadership selection and steward training. The size of the union victory means that management has to be more careful. They do not want to provoke a strike. If Case Farms will bargain in good faith for a contract that approaches the Park Poultry contract, it would provide sustained development for our immigrant community.

I am glad to share this news with you. I welcome a dialogue about how we can be effective for immigrant workers, and all workers.

-- Richard R. Renner

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