History is repeating itself in the stockyards of South St. Paul. Rallying outside the Dakota Premium meat packing plant, the notoriously anti-union company’s workers and their supporters demanded Dakota Premium abandon its stall tactics and negotiate in good faith with members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 789.
“We want to negotiate a new contract,” Rebecca Williamson, a worker at the plant, told the crowd of about 50 that gathered September 19. “We want an end to harassment of union supporters on the job, which we know has been going on and we know is still going on.”
Williamson and other workers at the plant report that since their previous contract expired July 1, Dakota Premium has been in no hurry to secure a new one. Management has hindered negotiations, they say, by refusing to allow members of the union’s negotiating committee to leave work early – at no cost to the company – and participate in talks.
Dakota Premium “will not negotiate during the day,” Local 789 President Don Seaquist said. “After working 10-hour days, they expect workers to sit down and negotiate a contract.”
Although dragging its feet in contract talks, the company has pushed hard for a vote to decertify the workers’ union, which Williamson said will take place in the coming weeks.
Local 789 claims Dakota Premium convinced workers to sign a decertification petition under false pretenses. Many workers, the union says, were not told clearly that they were signing a document to get rid of the union.
Although Williamson acknowledged a handful of Dakota Premium workers do not want a union, she said the decertification vote is not viable. Rather, she said, it is another way for management to put off good-faith negotiations with the union.
“Management said we’ve been given raises every year for the past 14 years, but tons of workers dispute that,” Williamson said. “The workers around me, they’ve been here 15, 16 years, and they say that before the union, for at least three out of four years, there were no raises.
“Everybody understands management does not care about us. The only way we can gain some respect and decent working conditions is by showing a little strength.”
Echoes from the past
This is not the first time Dakota Premium and Local 789 have clashed in South St. Paul.
During an organizing drive just five years ago, pro-union workers at the plant employed a work stoppage that demonstrated their overwhelming support for representation – support that played out in a National Labor Relations Board-sanctioned election soon thereafter.
Still, management refused to give in. Dakota Premium stalled contract negotiations with Local 789 so effectively that two years passed after the NLRB election before workers achieved their first contract.
That bitter struggle – along with plenty of others throughout the history of these stockyards – was on the minds of speakers at yesterday’s rally.
State Rep. Rick Hansen, whose district includes the Dakota Premium property, said the struggle “has been going on for a long time, and it’s been going on for a long time in South St. Paul.”
“These are tough jobs, and they were tough jobs at the turn of the century,” Seaquist added. “‘The Jungle’ has not changed. Even though the workers have different last names, they are still second- and third- and fourth-generation immigrant workers.”
Because so many non-English speakers and new immigrants work in the meat packing industry, Local 789 worked hard last spring to get a Packinghouse Workers Bill of Rights through the state Legislature.
Now state law, the measure requires meat packing employers post information on workers’ legal rights in languages the workers understand. It also requires plants to make workers aware they have a right to organize – or not organize – unions.
The meat packing industry fought hard against the bill, and some at yesterday’s rally questioned whether Dakota Premium was unwilling to negotiate fairly with workers out of spite for Local 789.
“We heard some threats that if this bill passed, there would be consequences, and we’re here today because there were consequences,” Hansen said. “But we need to work for basic human rights, basic human dignity regardless of the consequences.”
Michael Moore edits the St. Paul Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Trades & Labor Assembly.