Alabama poultry workers vote to unionize

Despite intense anti-union pressure from their employer, 1,200 poultry processing workers in Russellville, Alabama voted overwhelmingly to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). The workers, employed by Pilgrim’s Pride, voted 706-292 in favor of the union. Control over their work lives was the main issue that motivated workers to unionize.

“We had no respect from management and absolutely no voice in anything that affected us,” said Cheryl Kowalski, who works in the plant’s sanitation department. “They told us what to do and when to do it, and there were no questions allowed. And if there any problems, you couldn’t go to management because they did not want to deal with resolving them, and workers here were left bitter and angry. The bottom line was ‘do what you are told or you don’t have a job’.”

“The key issues at Pilgrim’s Pride was the right to redress grievances at work and the ability to have some input into how the place is run, said John Whitaker, RWDSU Mid-South Council president. “(The workers) knew the difference it would make to  have a union their side.”

Working in poultry processing plant where workers wield knives and scissors to split open poultry that can move past them on  conveyor belts at speeds approaching 90 birds per minute is hard, dangerous work made even more so when your boss controls everything. These conditions have been well documented in a series of articles that ran in the Charlotte Observer.

Pilgrim’s Russellville plant is no exception. In 2010, it was fined $135,000 for health and safety violations by the US Occupational Health and Safety Administration. An OSHA official said that the violations were part of a historic pattern.

“This company has been cited numerous times in the last five years and should be aware of the safety and health measures that need to be addressed to protect its workers,” said Roberto Sanchez, OSHA area director in Birmingham in a statement about the 2010 fine.

RWDSU began getting calls from workers at the Russellville plant frustrated by the dangerous working conditions, excessively high speeds of the production line, and the unwillingness of plant management to listen to their concerns or address their grievances.

“I finally got a call from a couple of guys who wanted to meet with me,” said Randy Hadley, RWDSU organizer to “You could tell things had gotten way out of control.”

When the organizing drive got started in earnest, the company pushed back. As the union election approached, workers were forced to attend captive-audience meetings at which company representatives, according to RWDSU, threatened layoffs and implied that the plant could close if the workers voted for the union.

The company put other obstacles in the way of the organizing drive. The company contacted local establishments where workers gathered to discuss the union campaign and asked them to bar union activists.

It also threatened hotels with a boycott if they rented rooms to union organizers and as the election drew near booked hotel meeting rooms, so that the union could not use them to hold meetings.

Despite the company’s efforts, the workers, most of whom are African-American and Latino, voted by 71 percent for the union.

The National Labor Relations Board has yet to certify the results of the election that took place on June 7 and 8, but it is expected to do so soon. When it does, Pilgrim’s management has said that it will recognize the union.

Pilgrim’s Pride is the second largest chicken producer in the world and is owned by JBS SA, a multi-national corporation headquartered in Brazil.


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