February 17, 2005: For months, Local 556 members and leaders in Pasco, Wash., have fought a tremendous battle against union-busting at Tyson Foods. But on Feb. 11, Tyson was able to bust the Teamsters at their Pasco plant.
The union defeat came just one day after Wal-Mart announced they would close their only unionized store in North America rather than deal fairly with the union in Jonquiere, Quebec. Wal-Mart and Tyson are two of the most notoriously anti-union corporations, and both are well connected politically.
Local 556’s well organized and spirited grassroots struggle was not enough to overcome company lies, mass layoffs, and corporate intimidation—not when International officials also turned against the local union. The union is reviewing options for continuing the struggle for justice for Tyson workers.
Hoffa: The Weak Link
Tyson management gladly used Hoffa administration attacks on Local 556 leadership to fuel their union-busting campaign. In the days leading up to the decertification vote, the corporation distributed videotapes and leaflets to every employee. The company also held frequent captive audience meetings where workers were prohibited from speaking or asking questions. These tools are standard for union-busting corporations but the focus of management’s attacks was not: The number one weapon they used against Local 556 in the closing week of their campaign was to quote International officials’ political attacks.
In videotapes, meetings and flyers, management repeatedly quoted IBT Food Processing Division Director Fred Gegare and other IBT officials attacking Local 556 Secretary-Treasurer Maria Martinez. The punch line of one management leaflet quoting Fred Gegare is, “Based on these statements, can there be any question as to how the International Teamsters Union feels Maria Martinez and Local 556 have failed you? Vote NO to Local 556…”
The attacks that Tyson management circulated came from internal union correspondence that the IBT had publicly leaked to undermine Local 556 leaders and recruit a slate to oppose them in the upcoming local union election. Martinez is one of very few Latina principal officers in the Teamsters and a TDU leader who opposed the Hoffa slate in the last two IBT elections.
A Statement, After Voting Started
Martinez wrote to President Hoffa on Feb. 4, urgently requesting that the General President issue a statement of support clarifying the International Union’s position. Hoffa waited six days, until after the voting had already started, to issue a generic half-page statement. By then, the damage was done.
Many Teamster locals and the Washington Joint Council provided solidarity and financial support to Local 556 during the long fight. More than 90 Teamster locals donated tens of thousands of dollars to Local 556. A few Teamster locals and other unions even sent organizers to assist the local.
An organizing committee of more than 75 Tyson workers met weekly to plan and execute the Union Yes campaign, which included house calls, a phone bank, a Union Yes hotline in four languages, radio ads, and multi-lingual leaflets and mailings.
The local also organized an extensive community-labor solidarity campaign that gathered more than 10,000 signatures on a support petition and distributed solidarity messages from churches, union leaders and community groups. Human Rights Watch issued a scathing report on Tyson’s treatment of its employees. More than 500 Tyson workers and supporters attended a labor-community rally to urge workers to vote Union Yes.
First Ever to Defeat Tyson Decert
Using similar tactics, Local 556 defeated Tyson in a decertification vote last April. Local 556 is believed to be the first union local ever to beat Tyson in a decert election. But Tyson successfully lobbied the Bush administration’s NLRB for a rerun election—over the objections of the NLRB’s own Regional Director and hearing officer.
In the lead-up to the second election, Tyson laid off 400 workers at the plant and said that the union was responsible. Supervisors started a whisper campaign that the plant would close if members voted again for the Teamsters. These and other lies were printed in the local Spanish language newspaper, which acted as the company’s mouthpiece during the campaign. Local 556 leaders have filed a libel lawsuit against the publisher who, incredibly, was formerly on the Hoffa administration payroll as a paid attack dog against Local 556 reformers.
A sophisticated and expensive intimidation campaign by the corporation aimed to divide and frighten the immigrant workforce. But in the final analysis, 1,500 Teamsters in Pasco lost their collective bargaining rights because their own international union treated them as collateral damage—less important than the International’s war against the reformers that Local 556 members elected to office by a wide margin.
The Hoffa administration put politics ahead of our union and its members. As a result, our union lost 1,500 members and faces the threat of more decertification votes as food processing corporations look to move against other Teamster bargaining units in Eastern Washington and Oregon.
In the fight against union-busting at Tyson Foods, Local 556 leaders and members were up to the task. So were Teamster local leaders from all sides of the political fence.
It was the IBT that was the weak link in this fight. This victory for the union-busters should be a wake-up call for all Teamsters who care about the future of our union.