UFCW: Strategy of Appeasement

by Tom Wetzel and Jake Edwards

The United Packinghouse Workers Union (UPWA) had been strongly influenced by the democratic and militant traditions inherited from the Independent Union of All Workers, founded at Hormel by IWW organizers in 1933, and the left-wing socialists of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee. With the competition between the UPWA and Amalgamated Meatcutters Union for the allegiance of meatpacking workers, workers in the industry continued to gain higher wages, improved benefits, safety and job security. This continued from the founding of the IUAW and PWOC in the '30s up into the '60s.

During the period of American economic growth after World War II, meat packing companies were investing heavily in new production capacity (new refrigeration, more automated techniques, etc.). The federal government's highway program made it more feasible to locate new plants out in the countryside, closer to where the animals were, and former big city packing centers like Chicago declined.

The Amalgamated was a conservative craft union of the AFL type. Despite the efforts of the UPWA and Amalgamated to build a pattern of common contract expiration dates and a national wage standard, the Amalgamated did permit the existence of an institution called the "Southern differential" in which southern operations were allowed to pay their workers less. In other words, a lower rate for blacks. "rednecks" and workers of Mexican descent.

The first break in this pattern was in the poultry industry, which began to move south in the '50s. At that time wages in the poultry industry were roughly equal to those in red-meat packing. By the 1970s the wage level in the poultry packing industry had fallen to less than half the red-meat rates.

In the early '60s a fledgling outfit opened a plant in Denison, Iowa. The company(Iowa Beef Processors(had new ideas about the beef business. Instead of shipping half carcasses into the Eastern markets to be cut up and sold at the retail level, this company would split up the beef into "primal cuts" and package them for retail sale. This meant that the grocery store didn't have to buy or butcher those cuts which weren't good sellers in their particular markets. This idea was very popular with supermarkets. But "boxed beef" was not popular with retail butchers(it eliminated their jobs. But IBP bribed a certain International Vice-President of the Amalgamated and "boxed beef" was allowed into selected Eastern markets.

With its plants located in rural areas, where unionism was weak, IBP could operate as a low-wage, non-union packer. Meanwhile, the mainline packers had been acquired by conglomerates; Greyhound bought Armour, LTV owned Wilson & Co., General Brands had Morell, etc. IBP was able to grow very rapidly during a period when these conglomerates were milking their meatpacking subsidiaries.

In 1967 the Amalgamated merged with the UPWA; the merged organization never acquired the will to organize IBP. In negotiations the major packers would routinely warn the Amalgamated, and later its successor, the UFCW, that they had better get IBP into the industry pattern or suffer the consequences.

By the mid-'70s the Amalgamated bureaucracy could no doubt see that the conglomerates weren't investing in their plants. They could see the proverbial "writing on the wall," and looked around for a way to extricate themselves from the impending disaster. In 1979 the Amalgamated merged with the AFL Retail Clerks union to form the UFCW. Today the UFCW Packinghouse Division constitutes only 9% of the membership of the AFL-CIO's largest affiliate. Thus, the top bureaucrats of the UFCW have even less reason to be concerned about the fate of the industrial butcher.

With intense competition from low-wage outfits like IBP and the general economic downturn, the employers' concessions drive in the meatpacking industry began in earnest in the '70s. When the dust settled from the union-busting, plant closings, bankruptcy ploys, and conglomerate buyouts, the $10.60 standard wage had been cut down to $6 and some change per hour in many plants.

Beginning in the '70s, the UFCW's strategy for dealing with employer aggression in an increasingly competitive environment was to use concessions as a means of "stabilizing" wages and, hopefully, placating the bosses so they wouldn't make further demands for givebacks.

Though the master contracts with the major, old-line pork packers didn't expire until September 1982, the UFCW re-opened these contracts in December of 1981 in order to offer to freeze wages at $10.69 an hour until Sept. 1985. This meant a wage cut at Oscar Mayer, where wages were then $11.27 per hour. At Hormel, Wilson, Armour, Swift and Morell, it meant a freeze at the wage rate that had been established in the 1979 contract.

The UFCW leaders thought that by taking the initiative to offer concessions in 1981 they would preserve the integrity of their master contracts and ward off future concessions. But it didn't work out that way.

In 1980 Dubuque Pack had threatened to close its doors unless it got concessions. The workers agreed and the company agreed to not seek additional concessions during the life of the contract. However, by March 1981, the entire hog kill department had been shut down and in October 1981 the workers agreed to a 16% wage cut. Despite these concessions, Dubuque Pack closed the plant anyway in October 1982 and it reopened as a non-union plant a week later under a new name, DFL, and with wages cut to $6 an hour.

In June 1983 Wilson used bankruptcy to get out from under the master contract, which still had two years before expiration. Wages were cut to $6.50 an hour. Wilson was still making a profit at the time. The UFCW then struck for 22 days, which resulted in wages being raised to $8 per hour ($2.69 less than under the pre-bankruptcy contract).

Greyhound demanded further concessions for its Armour pork plants. When the workers voted to reject the concessions, the plants were shut down. Thirteen plants were later re-opened as non-union operations under the aegis of ConAgra. The only response of the UFCW has been drawn-out legal maneuverings and a consumer boycott you've probably never heard about.

By 1983 Lewie Anderson (UFCW International Vice-President and head of the Packinghouse Division) admitted that the number of workers covered by the master contract rate had dropped by 40%. Instead of bringing the low-wage employers closer to the master contract rate, further concessions were made to Iowa Beef Processors, Rath and Pierce Packing. By January of 1985 the average hourly wage in meatpacking had fallen to $7.93, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Today only 40% of the meat butchered in the U.S. is union(down from 85% ten years ago.

During this same period working conditions in the plants seriously deteriorated, as indicated by a rise in the injury rate. A number of changes in the industry contributed to this situation: speed up, tough competition from vicious low-wage producers like Iowa Beef Processors, changes in ownership, letting equipment deteriorate in anticipation of shutdowns, introduction of new technologies and a push for a rapid increase in productivity, and the union's loss of shop-floor bite.

The UFCW's "strategy" of trying to appease the employers with concessions in order to "stabilize" wages and preserve jobs has been an obvious failure. The UFCW's "master contracts" have become a pathetic joke. In spite of all the talk of stabilizing packing wage rates at a "new level," Lewie Anderson's Packinghouse Division has completely done away with the common expiration dates for contracts and thrown away any chance of industry-wide bargaining for years to come. The UFCW's prevailing philosophy is, "Let's keep the union in the plants at any costs"...at any cost to the rank-and-file, that is. The rule of thumb in meatpacking today is that each company will squeeze or discard the UFCW for the lowest wages and the worst conditions it can get.