Smithfield workers on the line during the coronavirus pandemic. | Smithfield Foods
SIOUX FALLS, S.D.—The workers at a huge meatpacking plant here with a history of caring little about whether they lived or died during the coronavirus pandemic defeated this month the company’s attempt to continue crushing them, this time with wage and benefit rollbacks.
Worker determination to do anything and everything to protect their livelihoods became crystal clear on the night of June 7, when the members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 204 voted 99% to authorize a strike against Smithfield Foods if the company did not agree to substantial wage hikes and to cease its attempts to slash health care and other benefits.
For balking at the idea of making even more sacrifices for a company that endangered their lives and exploited them during the pandemic, they received little or no support from lawmakers, from Gov. Kristi Noem on down, who are beholden to the meatpacking industry. They received massive support, however, from the people in their own community, who turned out in car caravans to support them.
Workers at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant register to vote on the company’s contract offer, June 3, 2021. The members overwhelmingly against it. | Stephen Groves / AP
The struggles of the people employed at the Smithfield plant in Sioux Falls began to intensify sharply at the beginning of the pandemic last year. Because of company refusal to protect workers and Trump administration refusal to do anything to force the company’s hand, the plant was the epicenter of one of the first major COVID-19 outbreaks in both the meat industry and the country as a whole.
Of the 3,700 workers employed there, 1,294 were infected and four died, according to figures supplied by OSHA. In April 2020, the plant accounted for a large majority of total coronavirus infections in the state of South Dakota. The workers went home at the end of their shifts, where they then unwittingly infected members of their own families and their neighbors.
Yet the governor did nothing to protect them or the other people in her state affected by the contagion originating from the plant. In fact, Noem threw up roadblocks when the town of Sioux Falls attempted to institute its own protective measures. Localities were forbidden from doing anything to protect their residents that the state as a whole was not doing.
Yet the workers, led by their union and with strong backing from the South Dakota AFL-CIO, protested and managed to get the plant to temporarily shut down.
Smithfield’s callous disregard for the need to protect its workers resulted in a plant early this month where hundreds were still out on long-term medical leave, according to reports from Local 304A President B.J. Motley.
Despite the ruined health of many of its workers and the health problems widespread in the community because of Smithfield policy, the company announced this spring that it wanted $200-per-year increases in the out-of-pocket health care expenses paid by workers. On wages, the Smithfield pay of $17 per hour was already well below the industry standard, so a health cost hike would hit workers even harder. Workers, however, had another change in mind; they wanted the $19-per-hour wage paid at the nearby JBS meatpacking plant.
The tally showing workers’ rejection of the company’s proposals, 99% to 1%. | UFCW Local 304A
Considering everything, the UFCW made extremely reasonable requests. They basically only asked the company to rescind the demand for the extra $200 and to increase the starting wage to the same as it was at the nearby JBS plant.
The company said during the pandemic that its workers were “heroes.” The media across the country joined in on nationwide proclamations calling frontline food service workers “heroes.” Suddenly, however, as far as Smithfield was concerned, its Sioux Falls workers had lost that status. “We’re not heroes anymore, are we?” a worker with nine years at the plant, Anthony Yesker, told the Associated Press. “They should at least look at the fact that we all put our lives on the line to keep the company going,” another worker said.
It took bravery for the workers to take their strike vote. The last time workers at the Sioux Falls plant struck was back in 1987, when the company was still called Morell Meatpacking. In response to that strike, the company replaced half the workforce with scabs.
Another demand from the company this time was that the unpaid leave allowances for workers be drastically reduced. This was seen as a direct attack on the hundreds at the plant who originate from West Africa and need to periodically return home to provide relatives with much-needed money.
Only weeks after the strike authorization vote, Smithfield backed down completely on all of its demands and agreed to a starting wage of $18.75, just 25 cents below what the union had demanded. The company also agreed to a cash bonus of $520 for the workers.
It’s not a huge amount of money for people who perform the dangerous, bloody work of cutting up hogs, but it was a solid if unexpectedly fast victory for workers who never had to go on the strike they had so overwhelmingly authorized.
To help figure out why the workers were successful, People’s World talked with Kooper Caraway, the 29-year-old president of the South Dakota AFL-CIO. Caraway, known for his militant fights for worker rights, is the youngest AFL-CIO labor federation president in the nation.
South Dakota AFL-CIO President Kooper Caraway
“The fast and brave strike authorization vote was critical,” he said, “with the workers showing they were unafraid of company intimidation.”
“Then it was a matter of picking a solid group of negotiators. It is important that workers and their unions send strong people to the negotiating table. Strong negotiators who are elected by the memberships to be strong negotiators will do much better when dealing with companies. Who you have at the bargaining table matters.”
“Then it’s a matter of reaching out to the community,” Caraway said. The union movement appealed to the public in and around Sioux Falls, drawing the connection between the conditions faced by the workers and the people of the surrounding community. It worked well with huge car caravans of supporters turning out to back the workers.
Caraway said that another key to the victory was the issue of solidarity. “The labor movement here has worked for years on the issue of solidarity among workers across nationality and national lines,” he said. The plant has Latino, Native American, West African, and white workers. One of the things that happened at Caraway’s urging soon after he was elected head of the Sioux Falls Central Labor Council several years ago was the establishment of an international solidarity committee at the plant itself.
International labor solidarity was not at all high on the agenda of the old labor leadership Caraway and his backers replaced. Nor did they do much to grow the size and influence of the local labor movement itself with “organizing being limited basically to the annual Labor Day picnics,” according to Caraway.
Solidarity: Outside the plant, members of the Sioux Falls community express their support for workers inside the Smithfield plant. | AP
Caraway described what the new UFCW and labor federation leadership did at the plant. “We talked about the importance of being an active member of the union. There were discussions with workers about the need for all of the divergent groups to be united.” The unions organized the first ever Native American Day in Sioux Falls, attended and supported by all the other groups of workers and community members. “The result,” according to Caraway, “was the reduced ability of the company to divide and conquer people along lines of race and nationality.”
He also described how action was taken to protect workers from bad forces inside their unions, including in any and all positions of leadership. “We passed an amendment to our constitution,” he said, “that forbids white supremacists and fascists from holding office in any of our member unions.”
The militancy of an apparently invigorated labor movement in this part of the country, combined with unity among workers and backing from the community, seems to have yielded a much needed victory, at least for now, for the workers at the Sioux Falls Smithfield plant.
John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.
This article was republished from People's World.