Poultry workers: Poster-child for Employee Free Choice Act

WINESBURG, Ohio — After working 20 years at the Case Farms poultry plant here Ken Brown, 55, gets $8.10 an hour.

“You can’t live on that,” he said, “especially with the rising prices of fuel and food.”

On July 17, Brown and 160 other members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 880 walked off the job to the cheers of church and community supporters waiting on Holmes County Road 160.

The action came after over a year of fruitless “non-negotiations,” said Tim Mullins, the union staff representative. “They threw a ream of paper at us, but wouldn’t discuss wages. Finally, they made a ‘final offer’ — a 15 cent raise. The workers voted 294-12 to reject and went on strike.”

Mullins said the strike is “the poster child” for the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill supported by presidential candidate Barack Obama and congressional Democrats that would require companies to recognize a union when a majority of workers sign union cards, and would impose binding arbitration if a contract is not signed in a timely fashion.

A company like Case Farms would face steep fines for noncompliance, Mullins said.

At a recent “Listen To America” hearing held in Cleveland by the Democratic National Platform Committee, Brown presented emotional testimony about the strike.

“There’s no seniority,” he said. “And no insurance to speak of. My wife has MS and needs three prescriptions. I need three prescriptions as well. You call the insurance company and they put you on music. The company doesn’t care.”

The conditions in the plant are also very difficult, said Guy Torch, 59, who works with Brown in the box department making containers for the chicken meat.

“There’s no ventilation,” Torch said. “We work under electric boxes and the temperature gets up to 120. There’s no water fountain. We need four people in the department, but there is only the two of us.”

For a short time Sheila Martinez, 26, worked in the box department. She had been recruited four months ago in Puerto Rico where Case Farms holds job fairs and now is recruiting strikebreakers. Martinez was transferred to the breast deboning line where workers make cuts in chilled chicken carcasses moving at high speed.

“It moves too fast” she said in Spanish and held out her hands to show where her fingers had been frozen and her arms had been injured.

The plant kills and processes 100,000 chickens a day, Mullins said. The birds come from 100 nearby farms. Workers on the deboning lines must process 40 breasts a minute and the company keeps speeding up the line.

The great majority of the workers, Mullins said, are immigrants from Guatemala and Romania.

Carmen, a young Guatemalan woman on the negotiating committee, has worked at the plant for five years on the breast deboning line.

“We work nine or 10 hours a day, five or six days a week,” she said. “We get a 10-minute break in the morning and one in the afternoon and a 35-minute break for lunch.”

Her husband works at the unionized Park Farms poultry plant in Canton where workers make $11.50 an hour and have much better treatment. She and her husband have a child and together with four other adults share a house in New Philadelphia where the rent is $600 a month.

After the strike began Case recruited 30 workers from Puerto Rico, making them sign contracts that they would have to repay all travel and housing expenses if they quit or joined the strike.

“They’re intimidated,” Mullins said. “Their contract has no legal standing. They have the right to walk out like any other worker without penalty.”

While he spoke workers filed out of the plant and sat down against the wall for their lunch break. Two supervisors stood in front of them with arms crossed, staring at the pickets on the road.

At the strike tent, Melvin Rios of the Hispanic Ministries of Tuscarawas County picked up a bullhorn and appealed to the workers.

“We are fighting for you, as well,” he said in Spanish. “The people on top hate you. They don’t care about you. There are better conditions elsewhere. Join the strike. Don’t be afraid. We are fighting for a little bit of respect. We are fighting for your rights and dignity. The union is power.”

Mullins picked up the horn and asked, “Why do they pay you $3 less then other companies? We are fighting for everyone. Nothing will change. The company will not change. Join us!”

Although strikers receive minimal benefits from the union, Mullins said there are many hardship cases and contributions are welcome. Funds can be sent to: Hispanic Ministries of Tuscarawas County, 818 Boulevard St., Dover OH 44622.