UFCW sends organizers to Right To Work state

A union that represents poultry workers - and that is also on trial defending racketeering charges in court - is boosting its N.C. staff in light of Observer reports that workers at House of Raeford Farms plants are suffering. In Raeford, where the company is based, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union International recently brought in seven staffers to train local union leaders and to meet with House of Raeford's largely Latino work force.

House of Raeford and other poultry companies depend heavily on workers' hands to turn thousands of birds each day into cuts for restaurants, stores and cafeterias. In a six-part series, "The Cruelest Cuts," the Observer reported last month that House of Raeford has masked the extent of injuries inside its plants.

The newspaper reported that the N.C. poultry giant has broken the law by failing to record injuries on government safety logs, according to a top OSHA official, and that some seriously injured workers were brought back to the company's Greenville, S.C., plant hours after surgery. Employees said the company has ignored, intimidated or fired workers who were hurt on the job.

House of Raeford has said it follows the law and strives to protect workers.

Union leaders didn't know the extent of injured workers being fired or having trouble getting medical treatment before reading the Observer articles, said Jackie Nowell, UFCW's safety and health director.

UFCW leaders said they intend to survey workers to learn more about their needs. They also plan to increase the number of union stewards in plants.

The union said it is training local leaders and plant stewards to better respond to problems.

"This is different fundamentally than efforts in the past, where we would come in and do a membership campaign and sign up folks," said Ron Mattock, the union's executive assistant to the international director of organizing. "What we're trying to do is build it from the grass roots. If that means taking time to have people vent on what we haven't done, or dealing with grievances to re-establish credibility with the work force, we're willing to make that happen."

The union has struggled in recent years to attract members, particularly among Latino workers, many of whom are in the country illegally.

Last week, union leaders traveled to Eastern North Carolina to meet with workers in the Raeford area. Union officials said they hope to help injured employees receive appropriate medical treatment, increase union leadership in plants and add more Spanish-speaking representatives.

In the Observer series, more than 30 workers at four of House of Raeford's largest Carolinas plants said company medical attendants did little to help them when they suffered injuries or complained of pain.

One worker, Ernestina Ruiz, said that after months of de-boning chicken breasts she complained of pains in her hands and wrists only to be told she was fine and to return to the line. She later went to a private doctor and had surgery to remove a cyst she believes resulted from her work.

The union is ramping up efforts in seven poultry plants in the South, including four of House of Raeford's Carolinas plants. The union would like to reach out to workers at all of its plants, Nowell said, "but thought we'd start where the need was greatest."

The union is in contract talks with the company's S.C. plants and will soon begin negotiations in North Carolina.

Gina Swinea, a Philadelphia-based international representative with the union, recently met with company officials and toured the Raeford plant, located about 110 miles east of Charlotte. She and other union officials declined to provide details about the discussions.

Last week, Swinea met with about a dozen House of Raeford workers and employees from Smithfield Foods, a pork processor the union is trying to organize.

"The workers were encouraged by the (Observer's) articles because they said, `That's the truth of what's really happening. Yes, we're getting hurt,' " she said. "But people are afraid to report it for fear of retaliation."

In the Raeford plant, where union membership is about 20 percent, labor leaders say they have fought the company about plant conditions and proper safety equipment. The union also has battled the company over medical treatment for injured workers.

Some health care workers in House of Raeford plants lack medical credentials, yet they make crucial decisions about when to send injured workers to a doctor.

In 1994, under union pressure, one of the company's Raeford plants removed a plaque outside the first-aid attendant's office that read "nurse's station." Workers had told the union they believed they were seeing a licensed nurse.

House of Raeford said Friday it abides by its collective bargaining agreements. If disputes arise, the union can file a grievance or go to binding arbitration, the company said.

"We are pleased there have been no significant disagreements such as this in the recent past, and none that are safety related," a company statement said.

Justin Hakes, legal information director with the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation in Virginia, is skeptical of the union's plans. Workers should initiate organizing activity, he said, not outsiders.

The foundation represents workers who feel they were unfairly forced to join or support union activities. Hakes said he has seen an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking workers who felt deceived by unions. He said his group is assisting 300 workers across the country who have filed lawsuits relating to union activity. None work in poultry plants.

Union membership in poultry plants has fallen in recent years as the work force has changed from predominantly African American to heavily Latino immigrants. Labor leaders say employers have learned to capitalize on a fearful work force and strong anti-labor laws.

More than 80 percent of the nation's poultry is processed in the South, where union membership is lower than any part of the country. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, South Carolina in 2007 had a union membership rate of 4.1 percent. North Carolina had a union membership rate of 3 percent -- the lowest in the nation.

The Carolinas and most Southern states are right-to-work states, giving employees an option of joining, even in unionized shops. As a result, labor officials say, unions have less power when negotiating with management.


1 comment:

ya said...

This post is true. Ive been with a poultry plant for 6 months now, and, I sought med. attention and I was brushed off. They ( the ladys in the so called nurses office) tryed to turn this around on me. The 1st. shift "nurse" said I must have hurt my self before with another job. I told the lady, I had never had a hand or wrist injury before. I told her she could contact my last employers, since my jobs required my hands and wrists too preform my jobs, they were both labor intensive and physically challenging. I belive that and my education played a big part in me keeping my job. I did make a report and what I got was to take 2 pills and ice my problem.

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