Seneca workers struggle in Minnesota

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A protest in support of migrant workers’ rights drew 60 workers and supporters at the Seneca Foods Plant in Montgomery, Minnesota September 29. Workers at the Montgomery plant are angered by the company’s unilateral cancellation of part of a promised year-end bonus and by the firing of a long-time worker, Jaime Alarcon, allegedly in retaliation for his advocacy of worker rights and union organizing.

Roughly 350 of the 700 workers at Seneca’s Montgomery plant are migrants, who are recruited in mid-April in Texas or Mexico for the pea and corn seasons. Typically, workers spend twelve hours a day, seven days a week canning vegetables from April into October.

Seneca Foods is the largest manufacturer of canned vegetables in North America, with labels including Libby, Festal and Stokely appearing in one out of every three cupboards in the United States. The Seneca plant in Montgomery is one of six in Minnesota and twenty-eight in the country.

A lawsuit filed in LeSueur County Court by six Seneca workers alleges that Seneca violated Minnesota law by failing to give workers legally-required advance notice of wages and terms of employment, and by failing to provide health insurance. The Minnesota law was written to protect migrant workers who are recruited from out-of-state.

According to Centro Campesino, many workers who have been coming to Seneca Foods for years have never received the required employee statement. The workers assumed that wages and conditions would be the same as in previous years, including year-end bonus for those workers who stay throughout the entire season.

In previous years, Seneca has paid workers a bonus of 15 percent of the final two months’ wages, for workers who stayed throughout the entire canning season. This year, however, Seneca shortened the bonus period and reduced the amount of the bonus from 15 percent to 10 percent. Workers were not told of the change until after they had come to Minnesota and begun work. Seneca Foods says the bonus must be decreased to offset the cost of this year’s hike in Minnesota’s minimum wage to $6.15 per hour.

After Jaime Alarcon heard about the bonus reduction, he began to organize workers. He circulated a petition, signed by 94 workers, protesting the unilateral reduction of bonuses. He also began to organize an independent union of Seneca workers. Alarcon presented the bonus petition to a supervisor on September 18. On the same day, he was given a three-day suspension, and when he returned to work on September 21, he was fired.

Alarcon, a line leader at the plant, supervised 60 or 70 other workers and had no previous warnings or disciplinary action. He had worked at the plant since 1995. Alarcon has filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that he was fired for legally protected labor organizing activity. Reached by telephone, Seneca Foods refused to comment on the situation.

Another worker, Leonardo Cornejo, was suspended from work and escorted out of the plant by Montgomery police on September 18, after he was overheard talking to other workers about Alarcon’s suspension. His supervisor, Roberto Romo, accused him of “agitating” amongst the workers. Cornejo was also prohibited from eating in the company cafeteria that day and was told by the police to go to the local church to get a free meal.

Seneca Foods houses migrant workers in two trailer lots, one for men and one for women. Workers pay $3.50 per night to stay there. The trailers house twenty people in each room and do not have kitchen, bathroom and shower facilities. Children are not allowed in the trailers.

Centro Campesino reports that Seneca sent memos to employees in early September 8 and 10, instructing them not to join the union. Seneca painted Centro Campesino as a dishonest organization trying to get people’s money and said the company would oppose union formation by all legal means. Seneca also barred Centro Campesino organizers from the trailer lots where workers are housed.

Teresa Welsh, Lauren Lentsch and Lindsey Twin, interns at the Resource Center, wrote this story as part of the Resource Center’s citizen journalism project.

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