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Tyson Strike Draws the Line

“In the United States right now, the working class of America is getting lost because the corporations are allowed to have so much power,” says Chuck Moehling.

He should know. Moehling is among the 470 workers on strike against corporate giant Tyson Foods in Jefferson, Wis., east of Madison.

For six months now, the members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 538 have stood strong against Tyson’s never-ending greed. Throughout the long fight, only three workers have crossed the picket line–a testament to the determination of these workers.

Tyson wants blood from UFCW Local 538. The company–which ranks 177th on the Fortune 500–wants to impose a two-tier wage structure and cut two holidays for new hires, slash sick leave benefits by 50 percent, cut vacation time by 33 percent, freeze pension benefits and impose dramatic increases in workers’ contributions for health care. And those are just some of the big-ticket items.

Meanwhile, Tyson executives won’t be feeling any of the pain. Especially, Tyson CEO John Tyson in particular, who in 2002 received a $1 million salary and $3.5 million bonus.

The contempt that the company has shown for workers at its Jefferson plant has united the rest of the community behind the strikers. “The amount of support for the strikers is really inspiring,” Jim Cavanagh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor in Madison, Wis., told Socialist Worker. “If you drive into Jefferson, there are signs in almost every business’s window, there are signs in people’s yards. This is not the most politically progressive part of the country, but these citizens had a knee-jerk understanding that this big corporate giant was moving into their town and trying to undermine their standard of living.”

In particular, workers at the Tyson plant were infuriated by the company’s attempt to knock more than $2 off the pay for new hires–a proposal that, like all two-tier schemes, is intended to save money and drive a wedge between union workers.

Last year, Tyson earned $383 million on $23.4 billion in sales of beef, pork, poultry and processed food products. But with boycott efforts and production crimped by the strike, Tyson is feeling the pinch. The Dane County Board and the Madison School Board both voted overwhelmingly to stop buying Tyson products, and similar efforts are underway at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and elsewhere. Tyson recently announced third-quarter earnings of $79 million–down 25 percent from a year ago–and John Tyson admitted to shareholders that the strike was eating into profits.

“They’re losing an awful lot of money trying to prove the point that they want to be the big bully and not let people make a decent wage,” Moehling told Socialist Worker. “Part of the problem in our society right now is people are working two jobs trying to make a decent living, which makes it hard on parents spending too much time away from their families. And I think corporations like Tyson are behind a lot of that because of not wanting to let people make a decent wage to bring up a family.”

Tyson admits that this is exactly what they’re up to. “They want to bring the ‘cost of labor’ at this plant more in line with their other plants, and some of their other plants are in the South–unorganized and so horrific in terms of conditions that they even resorted to smuggling in undocumented workers because they couldn’t find enough residents to staff them,” said Cavanagh. “So the long list of concessions that they’re trying to ram down the throats of these workers is an effort to wind up with a contract that is more in line with how they treat their unorganized workers in the poultry industry.”

To break the strike, Tyson has turned to a mass scabbing operation, busing in replacements from outside Jefferson. “They’re trying to take advantage of the way the economy is, without a lot of jobs, and they’re taking advantage of the group of people that they’re busing in from Beloit, where there’s a really high unemployment rate,” says Moehling. “A lot of the people have criminal records, and they’re taking advantage of a group of people that normally wouldn’t get hired by anyone.”

Unfortunately, union leaders are trying to wage a public relations campaign based on the fact that the scabs are “convicted felons”–rather than come up with a strategy to stop the scabs from getting into the plant.

In struggle after struggle over the last decade–such as the “War Zone” struggles at Caterpillar, A.E. Staley and Bridgestone-Firestone in Illinois–workers have waged heroic strikes and sacrificed tremendously, but still weren’t able to win because they had no strategy for mobilizing mass support to stop scabs from crossing their picket lines. Experience has shown that the slogan “one day longer” plays into management’s hands–because corporations have deep pockets and resources that allow them to wait out a lengthy strike.

This is an issue that labor movement as a whole must confront. The Tyson strikers in Jefferson have shown their determination–and deserve our support. Building solidarity and shutting down production is the way to win a victory against Tyson’s corporate greed.

Bill Linville and Eric Ruder write for the Socialist Worker.

 

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