The Capital Times

December 18, 2003

Big strike, bigger stakes

By Pat Schneider

[Tony Schultz leads anti-Tyson holiday songs]

[Tammy Baldwin  stands with strikers]

The struggle against corporate greed is being waged along Main Street.

That's how the strikers in Jefferson cast their battle against meat processing giant Tyson Foods, and some policy-makers and analysts agree.

Representatives for Tyson and United Food and Commercial Workers Local 538 head back to the bargaining table today in Chicago, nearly 10 months after workers walked out on the sausage processing plant just off Main Street in Jefferson.

Neither side expressed much optimism publicly this week, and each offered a different take on who first signaled a willingness to budge on the wage and benefit concessions that brought on the strike.

Still, both sides have agreed to negotiate. "Tyson will have to compromise as well as us," Local 538 president Mike Rice said this week.

How the labor dispute ultimately is resolved will have wide-ranging effects, say some.

"People whose faces you will never see will thank you," U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin told strikers gathered in the cold Saturday for a rally outside the Tyson plant.

The Jefferson strike "absolutely will have a ripple effect," Baldwin said later, as the company negotiates contracts with workers in hundreds of other meat processing plants it obtained in the purchase of IBP Inc. of South Dakota in 2001.

That $3.2 billion acquisition made Tyson the world's largest meat processor. It the second largest employer in Jefferson County.

David Newby, president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, said Tyson is trying to bring the low wages of the largely unorganized poultry processing industry, in which the company started, to the beef processing industry with its tradition of union organization.

For the strikers trying to save family-supporting jobs from erosion by corporate earning goals, "the degree and intensity of support has been extraordinary," Newby said. "People see it as symbolic of what's happening within the economy."

The strikers have received major financial support from other meat processing and labor unions, as well as area businesses. A Washington, D.C., reception hosted by Baldwin raised more than $10,000 for the strike fund.

Aid from individuals has poured in from state, across the nation and around the world.

A segment on the Jefferson strike on "Bill Moyers NOW" on public television attracted donations from far-flung states - and $750 from a supporter in Switzerland.

Donations to the union's children's Christmas fund will allow families to receive payments of $90 for each of the 300-plus children of strikers, Rice told the crowd Saturday.

Support has come in other forms as well. Purchase of Tyson products was barred by the Madison Metropolitan School District, the city of Madison, Dane County, and UW-Madison. Dane and Jefferson counties passed resolutions supporting the workers. The UW Board of Regents voted to divest the university of Tyson bonds.

Baldwin last month organized a letter, signed by 26 other U.S. representatives, and U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis, urging Tyson chairman John Tyson to reach a settlement with workers.

The Jefferson strike, said the letter, "risks eroding the working-class values that have made America great. Those values hold that worker productivity and corporate profitability should equal job security, rising wages and benefits that provide health care and retirement security for working families. They represent a cornerstone of a democracy dependent on a strong middle class..."

Company officials assert that the wages they are offering are in line with those paid at other plants in the Jefferson and Madison areas. The health care plan offered in the proposed contract carries a worker premium well below the average paid by blue collar workers, company officials say.

Carin Clauss, a University of Wisconsin law professor, said that the struggle by workers for living wages - in actions like that against Tyson and the strike being waged by grocery store workers represented by UFCW in California - ought to make consumers recognize the power they hold in the balance.

"If we are going to maintain a living wage for American workers, we have to support businesses that pay living wages," she said. "It is up to us."

But for consumers who struggle to make ends meet, the temptation of discount prices can be overwhelming, she said.

John Witte, a UW-Madison professor who grew up in nearby Fort Atkinson, said Wednesday that it will be very difficult for the Jefferson Tyson workers to maintain the strike in the face of a long-term trend against unions in the United States.

"It's a very unfortunate situation," he said.

"It's part of a consistent pattern of de-unionization of workers" in the private sector, said Witte, a professor of public affairs and political science and former director of the now defunct Industrial Relations Research Institute.

"It's an ominous trend," Witte said, that is unlikely to be derailed by strikes, or consumer boycotts.

Unless falling wages begin to "hollow out" the middle class, effecting buying power, he said.

Businesses in Jefferson have supported the strikers, but this far into the strike they are definitely feeling the pinch.

Dave Lorbecki, owner of Dave's Piggly Wiggly, says his sales are down as striking workers with little money to spend turn to donated food stocks.

The protracted strike is a frequent topic of local business owners, he said. "It's mentioned more than you might think. People are hoping something will get started and they'll get back to work."

For Tony Schultz, a UW-Madison student and member of the Student Labor Action Coalition, the Tyson strike is an opportunity to spread the word about labor unions "as a mechanism of achieving social justice."

There's limited opportunity to learn about the role of unions in UW classrooms today, he said.

Many students think of unions as "antiquated, corrupt bureaucracies," said Schultz, who posed with children on the flat-bed sound truck at Saturday's rally and led the crowd in labor songs set to Christmas carol melodies.

Schultz's group also has picketed the Bishop's Bay home of Rayovac chairman and CEO Dave Jones, a member of the Tyson board of directors.

"He's our neighbor taking part in marginalizing our neighbors," Schultz said of the aggressive tactic.

Janel Pauli is a student at UW-Whitewater who said she held negative stereotypes about labor unions until she found herself striking with her fellow Tyson workers.

She has since learned about their dignity and self-respect, she said. And she has come to the conclusion that "somebody has to stop this company."

Ron Peich of Jefferson, an old union hand, is helping run the food pantry for Tyson workers at Local 538's strike headquarters.

"I'm proud of them," Peich says of his co-workers. "We're just as strong now as the day we went out," he said.

Peich said he wants to be optimistic at the prospect of a settlement, "but I'm leery of how they've treated people for all these months. We may be in for a hard time."


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