This Week In Labor: August 18

Hog boss fires pro-union worker

José Ozorio Figueroa, a worker at the Smithfield meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, N.C., was fired Aug. 6. Company representatives said he was terminated for showing up four minutes late to his shift, but Ozorio and almost all his co-workers believe he was fired for his union activities.

Ozorio had actually clocked in a minute earlier than the start time for his shift when he received the citation for tardiness. When he questioned the human resources department, he was told, “You have to be at your work station five minutes prior to the start of your shift. Anything after that is considered late.”

Ozorio walked out of the plant last week with hundreds of other workers. The temperature inside the plant that day reached 110 degrees, and the workers were left for four hours with no drinking water. When the water finally arrived, it turned out to be water that had been used to wash blood and feces off of hogs on the kill floor.

Ozorio has long been an active voice for Latino workers in the Tar Heel plant. Last fall, as a number of Latino workers were intimidated and fired over immigration issues, we began to organize employees to demand their rights. In November, he organized a walkout of 100 in support of their co-workers. He has also been a longtime activist in support of the drive by the United Food and Commercial Workers to organize the plant, the largest pork processing plant in the world.

National demonstration for Smithfield workers

On Aug. 29, hundreds of labor, faith and social justice leaders will gather in Williamsburg, Va., at the largest-ever rally in support of Smithfield workers.

Over the past year the workers’ struggle at Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant has become a major national social justice issue. As Tar Heel workers fight for the most basic workplace standards — clean drinking water, safe working conditions, freedom of association — support activities across the country have grown. Meanwhile, the workers continue to face verbal abuse, threats of termination and even immigration arrests.

Hundreds of plant workers and supporters from around the country will rally outside the 2007 Smithfield Foods’ shareholders meeting in Williamsburg to demand a fair process to gain union representation.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union will provide free bus transportation and sack lunches from major East Coast destinations, including New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Maryland, Virginia and six regions in North and South Carolina.

Anyone interested in reserving seats should visit the union web site at

Toyota workers pushing for union

As U.S. autoworkers start tough negotiations with GM, Ford and Chrysler, workers at Toyota’s Georgetown, Ky., plant want what workers in Detroit have — a union.

More and more workers at the plant are signing pledge cards that indicate their desire to be represented by the United Auto Workers.

Union supporters at the Georgetown plant point out that Toyota racked up a $14 billion profit last year on the backs of its nonunion workers.

Some workers, however, fear company retaliation if they come out and support the union.

Sources in the plant say that some workers who did not want the union when they were hired have now changed their minds. These workers say they were given a lot of promises when they hired on in 1988, when the plant opened, but now the company is cutting back on things. Raises, they say, are getting smaller and are not keeping up with the cost of living.

Poor health benefits at the Georgetown plant have contributed to building support for the union. Repetitive stress injuries and a variety of other health problems are ignored by the company and are not covered by the company’s health packages. Workers at the plant report that they have to fight the company whenever they want any kind of benefit, including workers’ compensation.

Just last month, sources say, 200 union supporters in the plant got together at a location outside the plant and discussed shrinking pay raises, threatened benefit cuts, injuries and the use of temporary workers at the plant, where 6,900 employees produce the Camry and Avalon sedans.

The UAW wants to get cards signed by 70 percent of the workers to insure victory for the union at the plant. It has, not released figures on the number of signatures it has so far.

Toyota calls its workers “team members.” A company spokesman would only say, regarding the push for unionization among his “team members,” that “these are decisions to be made by our team members, but we’ve had over 20 years of production at our Kentucky plant, and those team members have not chosen to be represented by a union.”

Toyota follows a carefully planned strategy to try to prevent ever having to deal with any unions.

A major part of that strategy is building plants in rural areas where workers are “grateful” for jobs and not accustomed to unions. Toyota’s newest plant, for example, will be built in Tupelo, Miss., one of the poorest towns in the United States.

Toyota essentially goes to small Southern towns that have little or no history of union organizing. Their aim is to hire workers who will feel they have gotten a good deal on pay and benefits and won’t then think about unions. The company looks for workers who it believes have “nothing” and who will be so grateful that they were hired that they will not think about saying anything against company policy.

Workers at the Kentucky plant report that supervisors regularly tell them they can leave if they don’t like their work conditions, and suggest to workers who complain that they can “go to McDonald’s.”

Trumpet maker hits sour note

The Vincent Bach Division of Conn-Selmer, Inc., of Elkhart, Ind., is hitting a sour note. The off-key manufacturer of high-end trumpets, saxophones and trombones landed on the AFL-CIO’s boycott list for hiring replacement workers after it forced its own workers, members of United Auto Workers Local 364, to strike more than a year ago.

The brass instruments cost $20,000 or more apiece and require experienced, trained workers to make them. The company forced a strike after it refused to back down on its proposals to slash wages and benefits and impose mandatory overtime.

The replacement workers (scabs) have not turned out so well for the company. Production has suffered in quantity and quality, and the firm lost $1.8 million in the first month of the strike.

NLRB backs union-busters

By a 2-1 vote in June, the National Labor Relations Board gave wide latitude to union-busters in a case involving Medieval Knights, a theater-restaurant in Lyndhurst, N.J. One week before the scheduled Sept. 22, 2006, vote by workers whether to unionize with Actors Equity and Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 632, Medieval Knights brought in two “consultants” to conduct “a hypothetical collective bargaining exercise involving hypothetical employers and employees.”

All workers were forced to attend the session, during which Peter List, the “consultant,” told them that the hypothetical employer did not have to agree to any proposals, that bargaining could take weeks, months or years, and that it was very possible nothing would ever get done.

Since List did not mention Medieval Knights by name, or say the company would engage in such tactics, the GOP majority on the NLRB said the union-buster acted legally and the board upheld the 18-16 defeat for the union. The dissenting Democrat on the NLRB, Dennis Walsh, argued that under the circumstances the workers would consider List’s statements within the context of their own employment and infer that, if the union won, the employer would rely on the strategy List described to avoid coming to terms. Walsh called List’s scenario “sham bargaining,” and voted for a second election.

Compiled by John Wojcik ( Press Associates Inc. contributed.