David Bacon Stories & Photographs
The Kill Floor Rebellion
by David Bacon

OMAHA, NE (6/6/02) -- St. Agnes Church and its sister parish, Our Lady of Guadalupe, are the heart of south Omaha. Every Sunday, hundreds of packinghouse workers -- Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans -- dress up in their best clothes, and stream through St. Agnes' doors on Q Street for Spanish mass. Mothers call out to little girls in frilly dresses, running giggling through the aisles. Men take off widebrimmed sombreros and talk to each other with the gravity of country people.

On the last Sunday in April, a sense of anticipation -- that important things were about to happen -- ran through the normal happy chaos. As mass began, Father Damian Zuerlein spoke to the subject on everyone's mind -- the coming election at the ConAgra beef plant.

Standing at the altar, he recognized the many ConAgra workers in the congregation before him, and gave his homily. "We say, there's nothing new under the sun -- some people have a great deal, while others have nothing," he intoned, comparing the immigrants of Omaha with the rejected Jews of the diaspora. "Our community knows the unequal treatment of the poor, and the time has come to make a decision." He introduced the plant's union committee. "Speak about your struggle for justice," he urged them.

Olga Espinoza, who works on the kill floor, made her way to the head of the church. Describing the accidents seen in her 8 years on the line, she announced that "we've made our decision and we won't take one step backwards. I want everyone to stand who's for the union." A couple of dozen workers slowly rose from the pews. Disappointed, she huddled at the back of the church with Sergio Sosa, the Guatemalan organizer for Omaha Together One Community.

At the end of the mass, Espinoza came forward again to give it another try, asking workers from the plant to come forward to get Father Damian's blessing. "Don't be afraid," she urged them. "This is our moment. No one's going to stop us this time."

Slowly, out of the first pews men and women began shuffling toward the center aisle. In a ripple spreading to the back of the church, more people stood and moved down toward the front. After a few minutes, over a hundred workers were on their feet, some with obvious trepidation visible in their faces, but all determined that secret support for the union would be a thing of the past. From that moment, Espinoza later said, "we knew if we could stand up in the church on Sunday, we could do it in the plant on Monday."

And that's what happened. The following Wednesday, just two days before actual voting was due to begin, the company made its final big play. Supervisors told workers in each of the main departments that they had to come to a mandatory meeting to listen to a ConAgra vice-president tell them why the union was a bad idea.

A year before, the same speech by the same man to many of the same workers, turned the tide for the company. A big majority voted against the union. But this time, when the kill floor walked into the room, the atmosphere had changed. Almost before he began speaking, workers were hooting and yelling.

As he wound up his plea to them, extolling the way he said ConAgra had lived up to the promises of a year ago, Espinoza stood up. Earlier, she and the other activists in her department had agreed on a list of three questions they'd ask, ones they were sure the company could never answer.

She walked to the front, where the managers sat on a platform above the workers, and told them she wanted to speak. They reluctantly agreed, but she demanded the microphone as well. "I want everyone to hear," Espinoza announced at the top of her voice, pushing her way to the mike. She fired off the first question. "If you're so concerned about us, why haven't you fixed the place where Tiberio fell and was hurt?" she asked. "Are you waiting for someone else to get hurt too?"

At first the managers just looked at each other, each waiting for someone else to speak. Then Maria Valentin, the human relations director, took the microphone. "She told us she couldn't answer the question right there," Espinoza recalled, "but that she'd give the answer to anyone who came by themselves to her office later on. No one liked that, and we began chanting, 'Now! Now!' Then they told us there wasn't anymore time for questions and to go back to work. We just hooted them down."

That Friday two hundred and fifty one people voted for the union, and a hundred and twenty six against. The union won, two to one.

Later the company credited the mass with turning the tide against them. They weren't far wrong. It was a deciding moment, when the workers' culture and religious faith created a sense of safety and security, which couldn't easily be broken by the normal repertoire of anti-union tactics.

But the mass was also a visible symbol of something deeper -- a long-term coalition between the union and a community-based organizing project, with a goal beyond organizing just that one plant. The United Food and Commercial Workers and Omaha Together One Community want to reorganize the almost-entirely non-union meatpacking industry throughout the city. And what works in Omaha may work elsewhere too, in the dozens of small midwest one-plant packinghouse towns, where pigs and cows get killed and sliced up into what's for dinner in America.

The people who do that work are immigrants. The meatpacking industry has always relied on them, and for a hundred years, through the 1960s and 70s, they were overwhelmingly European, with smaller numbers of African-Americans, especially in the South.

Today, the complexion of the workforce has changed, and Spanish is now the language on the floor of almost every plant. Most workers come from Mexico, with smaller numbers from Central America. Refugees from Bosnia, Vietnam and even the Sudan are a growing presence in some areas, but the vast majority of meatpacking workers are Latinos. A huge demographic shift has taken place in the meatpacking workforce nationally, and small towns throughout the midwest and south suddenly have barrios and Mexican grocery stores, and local radio stations play norteņos and banda music.

But for these workers, there is often a yawning cultural divide that makes the union seem alien and inhospitable. Union organizing in the old traditional style of passing out leaflets at the gate only tips the company off, and provokes an anti-union campaign inside the plant which terrorizes workers. The standard speeches about wages and benefits don't inspire people to risk their jobs, and even deportation.

The language of organizing has changed, but the problems haven't.

Tiberio Chavez, the injured maintenance worker used as the foil for Espinoza's question to management, recalls being approached by a worker on the line a few years ago. "He had a piece of metal from one of the machines in his eye, and asked me to go with him to the nurse," he recalls. "Not speaking English, he didn't think he could explain what had happened. So they washed his eye out, and I assumed it was all taken care of. But an hour later he came up to me again, and by then his eye was red and inflamed. I saw the piece of metal was still there. We went to the nurse again, and this time the foreman yelled at him, saying he was just a complainer, and told him to get back on the line. It was too much for me, and I got angry and yelled back. But that's what life on the line is like. They want you to work as fast as possible, there are lots of accidents, and no one cares about the price we pay."

Chavez himself was later injured in the ConAgra plant, as he worked trying to repair broken equipment. He fell from an unsafe position near the roof, and his forearm later had so many steel pins in it he looked like The Terminator. An open union supporter, he was fired. ConAgra representatives declined to discussChavez' case, calling it a private personnel matter.

Meatpacking unions in Omaha go back over a hundred years, and their uneasy relationship with immigrants and workers of color is almost as old. Rebuilding the union here will require renewed progress in resolving this age-old dilemma, and the relationship between UFCW and OTOC is one key to that progress.

The city's meatpacking industry was built at the turn of the century by eastern Europeans from Bohemia, Poland and Lithuania. Because they were Catholics, the church had a big presence even then. During the big strike of 1921-22 the priest of the Polish church in south Omaha spoke for the strikers, and their main organizer, John Blaha, ran meetings in Czech as well as English. African-American workers were already a significant presence, and some were elected officers of local unions.

The high point in Omaha unionism had its heart in the meatpacking organizing drives of the United Packinghouse Workers of America, which succeeded in unionizing the four giant packers of the day -- Wilson, Swift, Armour and Cudahy -- in the late 1930s and early 40s. The union, one of the most radical in the CIO, relied on a tradition of rank-and-file democracy, industrial unionism and militant struggle against employers. Master contracts covering both pork and beef processors set a wage standard above most manufacturing workers, even for companies that had their own individual agreements, or no agreement at all. It pioneered the push for automatic wage increases which rose with the cost of living.

The UPWA viewed unions as a social movement, fighting for community demands outside the plant as well. Locals organized anti-discrimination committees to address racism on the job, and the color lines barring Blacks from many bars and restaurants in south Omaha. Those efforts were then attacked in the coldwar hysteria of the early 1950s as part of a "Communist program."

The ideas behind social movement unionism were fought over in pitched political battles between leftwingers and their conservative opponents. Eventually, the left lost influence as the UPWA merged with its more conservative AFL rival, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, and then with the Retail Clerks, to form the modern United Food and Commercial Workers. But the ideas of social movement unionism left a lasting imprint in meatpacking unions, one which the UFCW/OTOC coalition hopes to revive.

In the 1980s and 90s, however, the industry was completely restructured, and although the union continues to represent 60% of the meatpacking workforce nationally, its power to set the wage standard was eroded drastically. Prior to 1980, animals were slaughtered in urban packinghouses. Quarters of meat were then shipped to markets, where skilled butchers cut them into pieces for consumers.

New companies changed that system dramatically. After slaughter, animals are now cut apart on fast-moving disassembly lines, where an individual worker might cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Boxes of meat sliced into consumer-sized chunks are then shipped to market. Speeds in the plant increased enormously, and as workers repeated the same motions over and over again, injury rates skyrocketed.

The rising giants of the restructured industry built new plants outside the cities, and pioneered cost-cutting by attacking unions. Strikes rocked meatpacking, as workers sought to hold onto the master agreements. Strikes against Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, IBP in Dakota City, Nebraska, and John Morrell in Sioux City, Iowa, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, were just a few among many long, intensely-bitter conflicts.

In the first half of the 1980s, the UFCW granted contract concessions to many companies, and packers competed to see who could get the best deal. In the race to lower standards, 30 plants closed between 1980 and 1982 alone. From the wreckage emerged a new group of meat monopolies - IBP (now part of Tyson Foods), ConAgra, Cargill, Farmland and Smithfield, which today account for 80% of all cattle slaughtered in the country, and 60% of hogs. In Omaha, the old monopolies disappeared, and their places were taken by new non-union plants -- ConAgra, Greater Omaha Packing Co., Nebraska Beef, and QPI.

Meatpacking wages fell to $4 below the manufacturing average by 1999. According to Mark Nemitz of UFCW Local 440 at Farmland in nearby Denison, Iowa, "When we gave them the cut (of $1.54 to $9.00/hour) in 1982, the company had 4 plants. Now Farmland has three beef plants, 11 pork plants, and a catfish processing operation. There was a waiting list to get a job here when I started in 1981, and I waited six months," he adds. "For the last five years there's been a labor shortage because of the low wages."

Carl Ariston, the lead organizer assigned by the UFCW to the Omaha campaign, says that in the last 5 years, "workers in the organized plants are getting decent contracts with rates close to where they should be." Nevertheless, the packers enjoyed twenty years of flat wages.

As they sought to fill the plants while keeping wages from rising, the percentage of immigrant workers climbed. Companies sent recruiting teams to Los Angeles and other established immigrant communities. They've placed advertisements on radio stations along the Mexican border, and even sent busses to pick up recruits as they cross over. "They're bringing people from El Paso, Durango, Zacatecas and Chihuahua," Roberto Ceja, a worker at Nebraska Beef's Omaha plant, commented in 1999. "The companies are sending people out everywhere offering jobs."

Nebraska Beef was one of the most active recruiters, and eventually became the subject of an INS enforcement operation as a result. Last year, five people, including the personnel manager, personnel director, production manager and another upper-level manager, were indicted by the Justice Department for recruiting workers in Texas and giving them false immigration documents. Those charges were dismissed in April this year. The strange logic used for chucking the case by U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf was that witnesses who might have testified in the company's defense were deported in an immigration raid at the plant on December 5, 2000.

That day, INS agents showed up at the south Omaha factory, and established themselves in the company lunchroom. Supervisors then stopped the line, and began herding workers upstairs, where the agents were waiting.

Jose Guzman narrowly escaped, by finding a hiding place in a huge air-conditioning duct. "I didn't come down from 10 in the morning until 7:30 that night, after the people had been taken away and the plant was empty," he recalls. "There was constant noise, and during all that time I was thinking about my family and my wife, who had applied for legal residency. I knew if the migra got me, they would deport all of us, and her application would be rejected. I couldn't even get down to go to the bathroom."

In some departments, company managers helped workers escape, according to Jaime Arias. He remembers that he and his friends went into a cooler and hid for half an hour among the animal carcasses. "Some people stayed in the cooler for five hours, without special clothes, and when they finally came out they were almost dead from the cold," he recalls.

So when he saw others heading for the truck bay, he followed. "We went to the shipping department, and got into a truck that was loaded with broken pallets. When the migra came to check, someone said there were just pallets on it, and they left." A trucker drove the rig to Lincoln, Nebraska, and Guzman says secretaries and supervisors gave them rides back to their homes in Omaha that night.

"They said to come back to work the following day, that there wouldn't be any problem. But some were afraid to go back and were fired." The company increased the workload to make up for fewer workers, Arias says, and when four women went to the office to ask for higher wages to compensate for it, they were terminated.

Two hundred twelve workers were picked up in the raid, in a workforce of slightly less than 1000. Guzman remembers a supervisor coming into a cooler where he was attempting to hide, and herding people out. "'No one can go in,' he said. The people were all trying to hide, and he was sending them back to the stairs, calling out: 'Everybody upstairs to the lunchroom.'"

Nebraska Beef was one of the first targets for the UFCW/OTOC alliance. The company reacted to organizing efforts among its workers with an extensive anti-union campaign. In an election held on August 16 last year, the union lost by a vote of 452-345.

Company tactics were so outrageous, according to the National Labor Relations Board, that it invalidated the results. "One supervisor told me that if we had a union, the company wouldn't make enough money to keep all the workers," says Juan Jose Robles, one of the union's main leaders in the plant." Robles describes threats of plant closure and blacklisting, directed particularly against people without papers and seasonal workers, and promises of wage increases to those who voted against the union.

After the campaign was over, Robles was fired. Despite pending labor board charges over the termination, "I feel impotent," he says. "They fired me very unfairly."

Telephone calls to Nebraska Beef asking for comment were not returned.

Faced with scorched-earth opposition to union organizing, and the close relationship between immigration issues and the ability of workers to successfully resist company pressure, traditional union-organizing techniques are not effective. That realization led to the development of OTOC's community-based approach.

As the demographic shift transformed the meatpacking workforce, Father Damian Zuerlein became the pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church on 25th Street in south Omaha. "I requested to come to Guadalupe because it was a poor parish," he explained. "And I asked myself, in this community, shouldn't it be possible to prevent some of peoples' suffering? And the only way was to help people organize. Working alone leaves no lasting impact. Besides, we all acquire greater wisdom and courage when we put our faith into action, when we put ourselves on the line."

Zuerlein saw the demographic shift taking place in his own parish. When he arrived in 1990, there was only one Spanish mass, and most Latino families in the church had been living in Omaha for two or three generations. But by the time Omaha had been included in a study of Catholic congregations at the end of the decade, 63% of parishioners had been living in the US less than five years, and another 24% less than ten years. While the older generation was jealous of the new arrivals at first, when the church began organizing in the plants the attitude changed. Many had been loyal meatpacking union members themselves in earlier years.

Zuerlein began organizing workers at Greater Omaha Packing Co. in 1996. "We were able to get them together very quickly, because the conditions in the plant were so bad," he explains. "People weren't getting bathroom breaks, and even urinated in their clothes on the line. The line speed was tremendous, and lots of workers showed symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome. But management sent spies into our group, and after a meeting with the plant manager, everyone involved in the effort was fired. We concluded that we needed to root our organizing deeper in the plant, and identify and train leaders willing to make a commitment."

The activity at Guadalupe and St. Agnes provoked a reaction by the companies, who went to the local bishop to get him to restrain Zuerlein. They stopped donating meat to church-sponsored events, and Greater Omaha and Nebraska Beef cut off communication entirely. But the bishop quietly backed up the organizing.

Zuerlein became a magnet attracting people seeking to apply liberation theology in midwest communities of Latino meatpacking workers. That group included Fr. Stan Kasun, who went on to establish a new beachhead in Madison, a tiny meatpacking town three hours away. Jamie Loberto gravitated to the church after spending two years at a radical Catholic base community in Chile. And four years ago, Sergio Sosa walked into the rectory looking for a job.

For over a decade, Sosa was part of the radical movement which organized poor Mayan peasants during Guatemala's genocidal war, that took the lives of over 200,000 indigenous people. As a seminarian, he learned to use the popular education theories of Paolo Friere in rural communities not unlike those which are the source of many of the Mexican immigrants who've found their way into the Omaha plants. When the civil war ended, poor health forced Sosa to leave the seminary and the country, eventually emigrating with his family to the midwest. Sosa was hired by Fr. Zuerlein and Tom Holler, who started OTOC. The organization is a project of the Industrial Areas Foundation, started by Saul Alinsky in the late 1940s among meatpacking workers in Chicago's back-of-the-yards neighborhood.

"I believe my political philosophy was born from what I saw and heard," Sosa recalls. "My conscience came by seeing injustices every day -- in the news seeing dead, and dead, and more dead. All this begins to create something inside that enrages you and makes you want to do something."

In Omaha's meatpacking plants, Sosa encountered an immigrant Latino workforce consisting of a mixture of documented and undocumented workers, often in the same families, who all form part of a broad network of relationships. The OTOC strategy calls for using those networks to organize first outside the plant, setting up soccer leagues, for instance.

He began holding one-on-one meetings with workers, "to create relations with people, discover their interests, look for talents, identify leaders and connect those leaders in order to begin to organize." Sosa recalls doing the same thing in Guatemala. "I think a lot of Latin Americans do this. It is part of our culture. We are all aware of what happens in the community because we weave that network together. We know where the Salvadorans live, where the Guatemalans live or the people from Chihuahua or Oaxaca. We know who people pay attention to, and where they go on Sunday after mass. We spend time together. But I think the art is to connect this whole cultural structure of social networks with African Americans, with Anglo-Saxons and others, in order to create power. Latinos can do many things and this is our moment. But we can't do it alone."

The first OTOC committees, however, were wiped out by Operation Vanguard, a huge INS immigration enforcement scheme. In 1999 the agency examined the I-9 forms in the personnel records of every meatpacking plant in Nebraska, and winnowed out 4000 names of people they suspected were undocumented. When they called them in to verify their status, over 3000 people quit their jobs, a result the agency called a great success.

Afterwards, Sosa and OTOC had to begin again. "But Operation Vanguard did raise the profile of the conditions in the plants, and of immigration as an issue," Holler says. Through community forums, OTOC and community leaders put pressure on public officials to call for improvements, and finally convinced Governor Mike Johanns to support a workers' bill of rights, which included the right to organize. "We got the governor to sign on because it basically just states the law, and he's a law and order guy," Holler says, "but it was like Roosevelt telling workers in the 30s that the government supported their right to join unions."

While fighting for the measure, OTOC developed its relationship with the UFCW, a process which started when they both opposed Operation Vanguard. At the beginning, Holler and Zuerlein had trouble connecting with local UFCW officials. But the IAF has projects doing community-based organizing among workers in other areas, including Los Angeles and El Paso. One such project in Phoenix helped set up meetings with UFCW international officials.

In the period after Operation Vanguard, the UFCW changed as well. At the time of the INS action, the union concentrated its criticism on the failure of the agency to allow it to represent workers caught up in the process. In other areas of the country, some regional officials still supported employer sanctions, that section of immigration law which makes it illegal for an undocumented worker to hold a job. But as the national debate developed which ultimately led to the AFL-CIO chainging its position on immigration and calling for sanctions' repeal, the UFCW's position also became clearer. At the Los Angeles AFL-CIO convention, UFCW Secretary-Treasurer Joe Hansen spoke in favor of repeal, along with leaders of other international unions. After the experience in Omaha, many UFCW officials believed that sanctions had become a weapon to prevent immigrant workers from exercising their labor rights.

Supporting the union wasn't an automatic response for Omaha workers, however. The committee Sosa had reorganized held several meetings in which they listed over 150 questions they wanted to ask union officials, about everything from their rights as prospective union members, to wages in union plants, to the union's record on defending grievances.

The list was reduced to a more manageable number, and twenty one workers then met with a UFCW group that included the union's regional director and chief organizer, the head of the Omaha meatpacking local, and international officials. "They spent a long time going over the questions," Sosa recalls, "and at the end, although there was an expectation they'd decide to affiliate on the spot, the committee said they wanted to talk about it further." When it met, people were divided over union affiliation. The moment of decision came, and seven workers voted against being part of UFCW, and left. The rest joined.

The relationship was more than just a paper affair, and was based on equality and commitment. The original committee paid a price in lost members.

Since that time, individual committees were organized in each of the separate plants, and the one at ConAgra is credited by Ariston with the May election victory. "Our committee was united and educated and active," he explains. The UFCW had four organizers assigned to the campaign, and OTOC two, including former meatpacking worker Marcela Cervantes. But the campaign wasn't an organizer-driven one, unlike many of those currently mounted by unions. "The committee did most of the work of signing cards and getting people active, talking inside the plant and going with organizers on house calls."

"The mass was the workers' idea," adds Zuerlein. "They needed a spiritual space where they wouldn't be afraid, and what we're doing has a long tradition. We're showing them even if they lose their job, they're part of a broader community that will support them."

After each committee meeting, workers got together with UFCW organizer Marco Nuņez and wrote articles for a newsletter, La Neta (The Truth). One ConAgra worker, Jorge Ramirez, turned out to be a gifted cartoonist. His most celebrated drawing featured a worker chasing a carcass down the line in a little car, running over another worker in his haste to keep up, while the line's speed control moves from "fast" to "faster" to "over the top." And instead of handing it out at the gate, workers took La Neta inside. After a supervisor trashed copies found lying on a table in the lunchroom, committee members even went to the Human Relations Department to protest.

Ariston is also a former meatpacking worker, who lost his job trying to organize IBP's non-union plant in Storm Lake, Iowa. When he looks at OTOC's contribution, he sees the church. "It adds to our credibility," he says, "and that connection makes us seem more familiar to workers." Ariston put his own ideas into the mix, making arrangements for Espinoza, Chavez and other committee members to broadcast spot announcements for the union on Spanish-language radio.

Winning an election at one big plant, ConAgra, and another smaller one at the Armour-Swift-Eckrich sausage plant, is not the end of the battle. ConAgra has to be convinced to sign a contract. But Jim Herlihy, ConAgra vice-president, says the company doesn't intend to appeal the election results. "We want a motivated and satisfied workforce," he explains. "Our position is that we recognize the workers' choice, and we intend to negotiate in good faith."

Seventy-eight ConAgra plants are already under contract, "and the company doesn't look at unions as evil," Ariston says. That differentiates them from the majority of large US corporations, who do. Certainly, if the union wins next time at Nebraska Beef, getting a contract there may require a war.

But beyond these immediate contract problems, two larger dilemmas are approaching rapidly. As the Omaha plants get organized, a wave of hundreds of new Latino members are going to pour into UFCW Local 271. After the closure of Omaha's older plants, the union now has less than a thousand members, most of whom aren't immigrants and don't speak Spanish. Its new members will have been organized in an independent and autonomous way, and are not likely to be content simply paying dues as passive members.

Other unions which have made alliances with Latino workers to reorganize their industries, like Los Angeles' janitor's union, had problems changing internally to accommodate the desire of those same workers to make decisions and run their new organization. "These immigrant workers are going to be a challenge for the union here," Zuerlein says. Ariston responds that the UFCW international office is sending teams of researchers and trainers to help build the capacity of the local to fight companies in organizing drives, and to establish a strong steward structure to defend workers on the factory floor.

Organizing drives generally raise the expectations of workers, who join unions hoping to make significant increases in their standard of living and win better conditions on the production line. In meatpacking, those expectations confront headlong an industry policy which has relied on immigrants to provide cheap labor. At the Omaha ConAgra plant, the starting wage is still $9.20 an hour.

"It's at least partly true that wages have been flat," Ariston says. "Because many of these workers have had to live with a lot less, the companies believe they'll be satisfied with less. So we have to change the way the union organizes. We need bilingual organizers to communicate. We need to deal with immigration issues -- workers' biggest fear. We need to respect their religious culture."

It is both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, if the union doesn't mount a major drive for better wages and conditions, alliances like that with OTOC won't be enough to win it the loyalty of this new workforce. But those expectations, combined with new methods of organizing and raising political consciousness, can provide the basis for a major challenge to the low-wage economy of meatpacking.

Those were the basic elements used by the UPWA in its heyday, when it won master agreements and organized virtually the entire industry. That history may be coming to life again in Omaha.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-

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