Koch’s Coalition Victory

Koch3New Orleans Enjoying lunch at the Praline Connection with an old friend, Rev. Jim Sessions from Knoxville (formerly Union Community Fund director, Highlander director, and still a voice for justice and reconciliation everywhere), he told me a story, that somehow I had missed that showed the power of the perfect storm when the we have a confluence of interests of labor and community.

Predominately Latino poultry workers not far from Knoxville had some issues around basic human rights and dignity on the job.  They ended up connecting with the Knoxville area chapter of Jobs with Justice.  One thing led to another, and JwJ helped get the UFCW to respond and connected with the Highlander Center to provide translation for the workers.  Jim and his cohorts included area clergy said they were going to maintain a vigil at the plant gates until the workers had fairness.  Koch’s (pronounced “cooks”) thought about it and stepped back and decided to be neutral in the campaign against the union holding no one-on-one’s or captive audience meetings.  Kaboom:   election victory for the workers by 460-18!

These are my kinda stories!  I tracked down the story of this victory nearly 4 years old and thanks to the miracles of the internet, you can enjoy the whole thing if you want to wallow in what happens when everyone does the right thing.

Koch Food employees fight for fairness

REBECCA FERRAR, ferrarr@knews.com
Sunday, November 20, 2005

MORRISTOWN – It all started when Koch Food would not allow its workers adequate bathroom breaks.

The plant’s mostly Hispanic workers, doing low-paid, backbreaking work in the chicken processing plant, got only a 30-minute lunch break and a 10-minute break during the rest of the day.

At other times, if a worker needed a bathroom break, they would have to wait or not go at all if there was no one to relieve them, workers say. Nothing, they say, was allowed to interfere with production.

“Conditions were pretty abusive,” said Ms. Gonzalez, who, along with another worker, asked to be identified only by her last name for fear of company harassment. “The employees had to hold it before they were allowed to go to the bathroom. Of course, it was painful, but you do what you have to do. When you went out on break, you would drink as little water as possible because you know you would not be allowed to go to the bathroom.”

Gonzalez and Ms. Rojas spoke through a translator, Robert Tijerina from the Highlander Center in New Market, which supports poor and working people fighting economic injustice and poverty. The two women cut wings from chickens at the plant.

The women say that some workers were harassed by management after an article appeared in The New York Times in September detailing the workers’ plight.

Denial of bathroom privileges also was used as a “form of punishment,” Gonzalez said – for example, if too much bone was left on a chicken filet.

Rojas said that if a bathroom break was needed but there was no one to relieve the worker, “there were no breaks. People in middle management did not know how to treat people. They had no respect for us. We were treated very poorly.”

Koch Food officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Both Gonzalez and Rojas have worked at Koch Food for several years, and they and at least 100 other workers finally decided to take matters into their own hands in June 2004.

“We decided one day we had had enough and we staged a rebellion, and we all went to the bathroom at the same time,” Gonzalez said. The next day, top management was brought in to quell the rebellion and “said we can’t do that,” Gonzalez said.

“After that, we were told we were allowed five minutes after lunch, but that only lasted a few days with the argument that there were production quotas to meet, that we would not meet production quotas if we were allowed to go to the bathroom,” Gonzalez said.

But the stage was set for further action.

Some workers filed complaints with the Tennessee Occupational Safety & Health Administration about the inadequate bathroom facilities and lack of access to them, about unsafe equipment, and about the failure of the company to properly train workers in the use of equipment.

Even when TOSHA came in to inspect, the inspectors could not speak Spanish, so management interpreted, leaving workers fearful of speaking up about conditions, Gonzalez said. During a second TOSHA visit, a Spanish-speaking official was present.

After that, Gonzalez said workers were allowed to use the bathroom without having to wait more than 10 minutes.

At the same time, other workers had filed unfair labor practice charges before the National Labor Relations Board after Koch fired some workers who complained about safety issues, according to Jobs with Justice of East Tennessee, a coalition of individuals and religious, community and labor organizations working for social justice for working people.

By February, the workers reached out to the United Food and Commercial Workers Union to begin organizing their own local, despite language barriers and hostile working conditions.

“I got very tired of seeing the abuse,” Gonzalez said. “Co-workers are very humble and feared losing their jobs, so sometimes they allowed themselves to be humiliated by supervisors who were not educated or know how to deal with people. The anger started building up until we realized there was a community out there to support us and a union. We didn’t think twice before we started organizing.”

First, the workers set up an organizing committee of workers willing to educate other workers on the benefits of a union. Then workers started handing out cards for workers to sign, saying they wanted to join the union.

Meetings and public rallies were held with the Highlander Center, Jobs with Justice, religious leaders and other groups supporting the union movement. The union sent in organizers from around the country to support the effort.

Interestingly, workers say the company did not interfere with the workers’ unionizing efforts, unlike some companies that launch full-scale anti-union campaigns.

“The program at Koch Food was definitely a worker-driven effort,” said Jill Cashen, spokeswoman for UFCW International in Washington, D.C. “The workers came to us for help, and we were enthusiastic to get involved. That whole campaign showed for us when an employer like Koch Food does the right thing – they remained neutral during the campaign – it’s a win-win for the workers and the company. We’re looking forward to bargaining with (Koch Food) for the first contract that builds on that good relationship.”

On Sept. 9, the union election was held. Workers voted 460-18 in favor of the union. United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 815, was born.

“It was overwhelming,” Gonzalez said. “We were very nervous and we did not sleep the last few days. But we were pretty sure we would win. The workers needed better conditions. I was overjoyed. The workers overcame their fear and let the company know we were there to fight for our rights.”

Rojas said she was “extremely happy” with the results.

“We knew people would eventually come around and do the right thing and stand up for themselves,” Rojas said.

Now, a union negotiating committee is bargaining with the company for the first union contract.

“It’s a steady progress,” Gonzalez said.

Meanwhile, some things have improved, and others have not.

Before the union vote, some workers did not have the proper size knife or had dull knives to work with. Now the company has provided workers with the proper knives.

“Now we can go to the restroom when we want to,” Gonzalez said. Still, she said, “Supervisors continue to bully and don’t show respect for workers.”

Business writer Rebecca Ferrar may be reached at 865-342-6357.

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