The Daily Cardinal

September 5, 2003

Tyson strike spurs UW-Madison boycott

By Adrienne Bell

With the motto "one day longer, one day stronger," 470 employees of the Tyson Foods Inc. plant in Jefferson, Wis. have continued a six month-long strike due to contract negotiations. At the request of UW-Madison students, faculty and staff, administrators announced last week the campus will no longer purchase Tyson food products.

Members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 538 voted 400 to 9 to go on strike Feb. 28 after Tyson proposed a new contract to the workers that would freeze wages, reduce employee pensions, cut health care benefits and decrease starting wage rates.

According to Tyson spokesperson Ed Nicholson, the company made the proposal based on the outlook for the company over the next four years.

"Looking at trends in the industry, what was being demanded of us by our customers, and in an effort to keep the plant competitive and keep the jobs in Jefferson, we made the offer we made," he said.

However, Michael Rice, president of the UFCW local 538, said Tyson is just looking for a way to make more profit by treating their workers unfairly.

"They forced the strike mode upon the people, not out of need but out of greed," he said.

Between June 2002 and February 2003, Tyson and the union held 36 bargaining sessions. Since the strike, Rice said Tyson has refused to come back to them with a better contract offer.

"We agreed that we would go back to the table if Tyson agreed. They aren't ready so we aren't ready," he said.

Tyson is not planning on negotiating a different contract either, according to Nicholson.

"We made our best and final offer and they said it was something they could not accept and that's how it stands," he said.

The strike prompted a group of UW-Madison students to advocate against using Tyson products on campus. Members of Associated Students of Madison, the Student Labor Action Coalition, the International Socialist Organization and other student organizations went to the administration with a proposal to cease the use of Tyson products, which amounts to a purchase of nearly $50,000 per year according to Casey Nagy, the executive assistant to the chancellor.

"The company is trying to break their union," said Matt Nichter, a member of ISO. "They are absolutely justified in going on strike."

After meeting with students over the summer, Nagy conferred with members of the faculty and staff to come to the decision to stop purchasing Tyson products.

"It was not about taking a position in the labor dispute as an institution, it was a reaction to what the community was telling us was their preference. We honored that preference," he said.

Rice said the support from the surrounding community has been "outstanding," including support from the university and said that it has uplifted the spirits of the workers, who for the past six months have taken turns demonstrating in two-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Nicholson said Tyson acknowledges the local support union workers are receiving.

"Most of the support is coming locally in Wisconsin. There has been sympathetic activity and we understand that," he said.

Neither side of the dispute knows what will occur next, although both Nicholson and Rice expressed hope the dispute would end soon. Rice said the strike has "taken a toll on the community," especially economically with families out of work.

Nicholson said Tyson has made a fair effort in negotiations, pointing to the National Labor Relations Board's finding that the company was not guilty of bad faith bargaining.

"They found that we had reason to make the changes in the contracts that we proposed," he said.

Tyson has hired 200 replacement workers and shifted some of the production to other plants to cope with the current strike. The Jefferson plant mainly produces pepperoni used by companies such as Tombstone, Jack's and Domino's.

The 470 union members will continue to strike until Tyson comes up with a better contract offer, Rice said, adding he is sad to see a corporate giant get away with treating their workers unfairly.

"You are talking about a huge corporate war that moves into a community and destroys them," he said.

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