The high injury rate at U.S. meatpacking plants is emerging as a big issue in the struggle to unionize that industry. The drive, among a largely Latino immigrant workforce, seeks to reverse the 25-year downward trend in unionization of the meatpacking industry which has been swallowed by monopolies intent on exploiting immigrant labor.

For years, 3,000 workers at Tyson Foods’ Holcomb, Kan., plant, have tolerated injuries as “inevitable” at one of the nation’s most hazardous jobs. Now, workers there are making the issue part of the fight for a union. At the Holcomb plant, 80 percent of the workers are immigrants from Latin America.

“We are taking on the giant with a rallying cry: ‘Sí, se puede!’” (“Yes, we can!”) said Tyson worker Ramon Sandoval. On March 1, the workers will vote on whether to unionize under the United Steelworkers union. If successful, the union will represent the workforce at the Holcomb plant.

In another recent fight, Holcomb workers sued Tyson last May because the company violated labor laws by not paying them for time spent putting on and taking off protective equipment.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) logs show that at least one worker is seriously injured at Tyson’s Holcomb plant every day. Workers there reported 452 injuries last year in addition to one death after a large metal door fell on top of a worker. These figures don’t include scores of cutting room workers who suffer nerve-damaged swollen hands from the repetitive meatcutting process.

In the last available year, 2005, the agency reported 47,500 injuries in the animal slaughter and processing industry (10 percent of the workforce) and 13 deaths.

“We are fighting for justice, dignity and respect,” said Sandoval, who volunteers at the union offices in Garden City, Kan., a few miles from the plant.

He described how on the killing floor, beef carcasses dangle from an overhead conveyer belt that streams past blood-spattered workers.

The assembly line in a beef processing plant works like this:

One worker slits a cow’s throat and the blood runs down into a pit below him or her.

The next worker skins the cow, and a third worker disembowels the animal.

Meanwhile, on another floor, in freezing temperatures, hundreds of workers cut the meat into sections.

Sandoval said bringing in the union will help slow the production line, help ease the repetitive motion injuries and bring better health and retirement benefits.

Carbon dioxide and other vapors from dry ice and chemicals used in packing meat are another source of injury faced by Tyson workers.

Meatcutter Manuela Lugas said vapors from the chemicals make her nose bleed and her eyes water, and she coughs all night at home. She said one of her friends at the plant, who is pregnant, has the same problem, but “she can’t complain because she doesn’t have legal work papers.”

The efforts by immigrant and other workers at Tyson and other plants has the potential to start turning around the de-unionization trend in the meat industry. In 1980, 46 percent of the industry’s workers were unionized, but by 1987 just 21 percent were in unions.

The rapid growth of big meat monopolies after 1980, Reagan administration attacks on unions, and the companies’ increasing use of a super-exploited immigrant workforce all helped weaken the unions. The workers’ current fightback, coupled with efforts to streamline the path to unionization through the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), are seen as a good start to strengthen unions in the industry. Passage of the EFCA would require companies like Tyson to recognize the union as soon as a majority of workers sign cards for union representation. This would avoid a drawn-out certification process stacked in favor of the company.

Tyson is the world’s largest processor of chicken, beef and pork, employing 114,000 people worldwide.

“Tyson feels they have a never-ending supply of cheap immigrant labor,” said union organizer Mark Pitt. “We have to show them that this situation will end.”

Plant manager Paul Karkienen repeatedly dismissed all issues raised by workers and the union as “rhetoric.” He said he opposes the union because “it always makes it harder when you have someone trying to intervene between you and your employees.”

Karkienen refused to address any other matters saying he considered them all “confidential.”

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