Xmas could come early for Tyson strikers

JEFFERSON, Wis. – Tyson workers, on strike here since February, face a winter of continued privation, forced to stretch out their strike funds to cover necessities. But as hundreds rallied at the plant gate here Dec. 13, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 538 President Mike Rice was able to cite recent victories like a series of early Christmas presents. The latest victory after 289 days: getting Tyson back to the bargaining table.

The rally began with a moment of silence for the union’s fallen fighters. The strike has drawn inspiration from the example of Gary Gilbertson, the former head of the local, who died of a heart attack during the negotiations leading up to the strike. Rice also recognized the passing of worker Mike Barkley. Signs memorialized both.

Next came the announcement of tens of thousands of dollars donated to the Tyson workers’ Children’s Christmas Fund. Rice stood beside representatives of local businesses Epic Resins and Kearn Motors, displaying large ceremonial checks for $5,000 from each company. Rice also announced an $8,000 gift from the UFCW of Canada. Its letter of solidarity stated that “kids of the Tyson workers will never forget the courage of their parents” and that the Canadian UFCW was “blessed to be in solidarity with such heroic men and women.” Rice later said that total contributions and pledges would purchase about $90 of presents for each Tyson family child.

U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) told the strikers that she had gathered 27 of her congressional colleagues from the House and Senate to join in sending a letter to CEO John Tyson supporting the Jefferson strikers. Speaking of the strikers, Baldwin said, “The line in the sand that you’ve been willing to draw is having a ripple effect for working people across this nation. Your sacrifice is helping many, many others.”

Negotiations, which ended in February, were scheduled to resume Dec. 18. Rice explained, “We are going back to the bargaining table because it’s the right thing to do.” Rice said the strike is clearly hurting Tyson, and he hoped they would be willing now to make a reasonable offer. “I don’t want to build up hopes because I don’t know what Tyson’s positions are going to be,” he said, but “we need to put this struggle to bed.”

However, Rice was not offering any concessions, vowing that the bargaining team would do what they need to do to get a fair contract. “Our ten commandments haven’t gone away,” he said, referring to the union’s 10 key demands “If we can get a collective bargaining agreement, fine; if not, we’ll come back and strategize.”

Tony Schultz, a University of Wisconsin student activist, announced that the UW regents voted Dec. 6 to divest its $200,000 of Tyson holdings. Schultz said that student activists have advocated divestment on a number of issues every year, but that this was the “first time since apartheid” that a campaign for divestment had succeeded. “Usually they just laugh at us,” he said, but this time massive community support made the difference. Schultz also led the audience in song. Because of the cold, the carols were limited to two: “God Rest Ye Weary Laborers” and “Rudolph the Union Reindeer,” and then Santa Claus took the stage to pose with strikers’ children.

Last of all, the assembled workers walked through the plant gates with signs and banners, chanting, “What’s disgusting? Union Busting! What’s outrageous? Tyson wages!”

In other news this week, Tyson announced two plant closings in New England, and a judge ruled that a class action environmental lawsuit against Tyson could go forward.

To donate to the Tyson strikers, checks should be made out to “UFCW Local 538 Strike Fund” and mailed to 2228 Myrtle Street, Madison, WI 53704.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.