The Raleigh News & Observer


Labor unions test Case


November 30, 1996

(Raleigh, NC),

MORGANTON - Faced with a shortage of local workers willing to tolerate the unpleasant conditions at its chicken processing plant, Case Farms Inc. of Morganton decided to look southward.

In the early 1990s, the poultry producer dispatched 15 passenger vans to recruit migrant workers in Florida and spread the word in Texas and California that jobs were plentiful at its factory in the North Carolina foothills.

Case Farms was especially eager to hire Guatemalan immigrants. Company executives decline to say why, but others suggest it was rooted in a perception that the Guatemalans were hardworking and docile - unlikely to complain, join a union or balk at the messy task of butchering chickens.

Today, business is booming at Case Farms. About 90 percent of its 550 factory workers are Latinos, a huge majority of them from Guatemala. The company's labor strategy, however, has backfired.

Upset with what they see as oppressive treatment and a lack of respect, the workers have voted to join the Laborers International Union of North America and have engaged in a series of strikes and protests to force Case Farms to the bargaining table. So far, the company has refused.

But the dispute has put pressure on Case Farms and the rest of the state's fast-growing poultry industry, which has come to depend on immigrant labor and, until now, has successfully fought off union organization campaigns in North Carolina.

This week, U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich announced that the federal government would investigate working conditions in poultry plants nationwide, with an emphasis on North Carolina and Arkansas, where chicken producers predominate. Reich said his decision was prompted in part by publicity about the Case Farms conflict.

The story of Case Farms, however, is more than a labor dispute. It also is an illustration of how simple corporate decisions can unleash economic and cultural forces that collide in unexpected ways.

For instance, Case Farms' hiring practices have forced the city of Morganton to absorb an influx of newcomers that is straining services and fueling resentment. The same perplexing issue is surfacing all over the state, but especially in small towns and rural areas, as thousands of immigrants move north to fill low-wage farm and factory jobs that local people don't want.

Chris Scott, executive director of the AFL-CIO in North Carolina, describes the Case Farms organizing effort as "one of the major labor struggles in the country."

"The main problem with these kinds of workers is that they are extremely vulnerable," he says. "Some of them may not have gotten Jesse Helms to stamp their passport on the way in. They may not want to rock the boat that much."

### Last straw, first strike: In January 1995, Carlos Salido was working construction jobs near West Palm Beach, Fla., when a man made him a tempting offer. A chicken plant in North Carolina was hiring workers. Salido could earn $7.50 an hour, the man said, and have the opportunity to work as many as 70 hours a week.

Salido accepted. The labor recruiter drove Salido and three other job-seekers on a 700-mile trip north to a place they had never heard of before: Morganton, a town of 16,000 people 50 miles east of Asheville.

Case Farms paid the recruiter $50 for each worker he brought, then put Salido and the others right to work. With no formal training, Salido began on the "whole bird" line, where he sliced off chickens' feet.

He also spent time in the "live hang" department, where the job required him to grab live chickens and shackle them to steel hooks, at a rate of several birds a minute. The work was hard - the chickens would scratch and claw - and it paid less than advertised, a maximum of $6.35 an hour.

"The lines were flying by and the work was so repetitive," said Salido, a native of Guatemala who was later fired by Case and now works full time for the Laborers as an organizer. "It was cold. It sucked."

Supervisors also imposed strict rules on the factory floor, which was chilled to a temperature of 45 degrees to keep the meat from spoiling. Workers were permitted three bathroom breaks a day and had to pay for their own hairnets, gloves and rubber boots.

One day in May 1995, three workers tried to seek out the plant manager to complain about the working conditions. After being ignored, they defiantly refused to return to the butchering line. The company fired them on the spot and had them arrested for trespassing.

The arrests caused a stir among co-workers who thought their colleagues had been treated unfairly. The next Monday, 300 people walked off the job in protest and went on strike for three days.

### Union gains a toehold: News of the strike spread quickly and reached the Laborers union, which had been trying without success to organize workers at two Perdue Farms poultry plants in Lewiston-Woodville and Robersonville, both in northeastern North Carolina.

The Laborers immediately sent staff members to Morganton to see if they could build support for a union. Some workers at Case proved enthusiastic, and an election was held two months later. Despite stiff opposition from the company, employees voted 238 to 183 in favor of the union.

"It wasn't like you had to spend time talking to each of them to convince them," said Patrick Moran, a Laborers organizer currently assigned to Morganton. "They were definitely ready to run."

It was the first time workers at a chicken plant in North Carolina had voted to unionize, despite numerous attempts. The only other poultry plant in the state with a union is a House of Raeford turkey plant in Hoke County.

Labor organizers have spent several years targeting the state's $2 billion poultry industry, which employs more than 21,000 people, according to the N.C. Poultry Federation. Only three states produce more chickens each year than North Carolina, which sent 570 million birds to market last year.

Poultry processing is also one of the state's most hazardous occupations. Wages are low, and the injury rate is high. The state's worst workplace disaster occurred at a chicken plant - the Imperial Food Products factory in Hamlet, where 25 people died in a 1991 fire.

Even so, unions have had little success organizing poultry workers in North Carolina, which has long been unfriendly territory for unions. Like many Southern states, it has right-to-work laws, which prohibit labor agreements that require workers to join a union. The state's overall workforce is the second-least unionized in the nation.

As a result, unions see the Case Farms labor conflict as a potential breakthrough, a reason to redouble efforts at other chicken plants in the state.

"Case Farms is no different from other places," said Jackie Nowell, a UFCW official. "Conditions in poultry plants across North Carolina are deplorable. And if people in the general public knew what was going on, they'd be horrified."

### Case Farms' incubation: Case Egg & Poultry Inc. was founded four decades ago and operated as a family-owned company until 1986, when it was bought by Thomas Shelton, a former top executive with poultry giant Perdue Farms.

The company consisted primarily of two slaughterhouses, one in Morganton and one in Winesburg, Ohio, which operate under the name of Case Farms. Shelton changed the parent company name to Case Foods, Inc. and moved the corporate headquarters to his hometown of Salisbury, Md.

Case is a small player in the poultry business, ranking 63rd in the industry last year. But it has grown quickly since Shelton took over. Sales increased by more than half between 1992 and 1995, from $85 million to $130 million. The company added 580 workers during that period.

Chicken from the Ohio plant is sold to grocery stores under the Amish Country Pride brand name. Morganton is a generic operation and ships whole birds, tenders and fillets directly to institutions, such as schools and hospitals. Each day, approximately 110,000 chickens are butchered in the Morganton factory, according to union estimates.

Production has not fallen since the union election last year. Case Farms challenged the results one week after the vote and since then has refused to sign a collective bargaining agreement.

In documents filed with the National Labor Relations Board, the company accuses the union of inflaming ethnic fears before the election by distributing a leaflet alleging that Case had summarily fired dozens of Amish workers at its Ohio plant and replaced them with lower-paid Latinos.

Case also says that union supporters harassed company loyalists by pelting them with chicken parts and threatened to report some workers to immigration authorities The union denies the charges.

The company's appeal has been rejected twice by the NLRB, which has certified the election results and ordered management to negotiate with the union. A federal judge has upheld the ruling. But the company has taken the case to the U.S. Court of Appeals, which is expected to hear the matter early next year.

Case Farms officials are keeping quiet about the dispute. They declined to be interviewed by The N&O or to allow a reporter to take a tour of the Morganton plant.

"I don't know that there's much to talk about," said Ken Wilson, director of human resources at Case Farms. "We are waiting on the court to render their decision and that's where we stand right now."

### Long, hard path to progress: Huehuetenango (Way-way-tuh nang-go) is a rural province in western Guatemala, bordering Mexico. About 800,000 people live there; some are of Hispanic origin, some are Native Americans and many are a mixture of both. Just about everybody is poor.

Hundreds of people originally from Huehuetenango now work for Case Farms. Most already have U.S. work permits from previous jobs in border states such as Texas and California. But some have come to North Carolina illegally.

The company is reluctant to talk about how its Guatemalan labor pipeline started. But John Vail, executive director of Catawba Valley Legal Services, a group that provides legal aid to the poor, traces it to a telephone call he received in late 1990 or early 1991 from a Catholic nun in Immokalee, Fla.

The nun wanted to know if employees were about to go on strike at the Case Farms plant in Morganton. Company officials had come to south Florida and were aggressively recruiting Guatemalan farm laborers from the sugarcane fields, and the nun was concerned that the workers were being imported as potential strikebreakers.

"They said they were asking for Guatemalans, because Guate malans were known to be especially docile," Vail recalled.

The company's first Guatemalan recruits soon were followed by friends and relatives from Huehuetenango, many of whom were already working in the United States. While most of them arrived in Morganton eager to work, they have not always proven to be docile.

In addition to the May 1995 walkout, the workers went on strike for two weeks in August. They've also organized a small number of other brief work stoppages, some lasting no more than a few minutes.

Workers and union officials insist that wages aren't a major complaint. Many say they are more concerned about the safety hazards presented by the constantly moving knives and hooks. Most say they simply want Case Farms to hold them in higher regard.

"I want to see respect," said Sergio Matheu, 21, who has worked in the plant for two years. "I want to see justice in the way they treat people and talk to people."

Juan Montes, a Mexican who came to Morganton last year after working for a decade in San Diego, said that although Case refuses to bargain, the presence of the union clearly has had an effect.

The assembly line has been slowed, reducing the risk of injury. The floor, once caked with chicken blood and grease, is cleaner these days. And wages have risen slightly, from $6.35 an hour to $6.85.

"We may be Guatemalans and Mexicans, but we are humans, too, and we deserve respect," said Montes, who expects to take his oath of citizenship next month and settle permanently in Morganton with his wife and two daughters.

### Change in Morganton: Twenty years ago, foreigners were such a rare sight in Morganton that international visitors were routinely invited into the public schools so that students could get a look at a real, live foreigner.

In 1990, the U.S. Census reported that there were 283 people of Hispanic origin in Morganton and surrounding Burke County, out of a total population of 75,000. Census takers didn't find a single resident from Guatemala.

The numbers have changed considerably since then, although an accurate count is hard to come by. Estimates of the Latino population now range from 2,000 to 4,000, with most coming from Guatemala.

Signs of the demographic shift abound. There's a new Mexican grocery in town, as well as two restaurants specializing in Latin American cuisine. The local cable TV service recently added a Spanish-language channel, sponsored in part by Case Farms.

But the rapid increase of newcomers also has led to some grumbling. Some worry that the new arrivals, many of whom are poor, are putting a strain on social service agencies.

Jimmy Jacumin, a Burke County commissioner, speaks for many when he says he's against proposals for the county government to hire more interpreters.

"To not require them to speak English is the perfect way to ensure that they'll be on welfare for a long time," Jacumin says. "If we don't teach them English, one day we're going to have two Burke counties, not one. We've got to make them Americans, not just Hispanics."

The union's battle with Case Farms has drawn mixed reactions in a town dotted with furniture and textile factories. Morganton has never been a hotbed of labor activism. Other than the chicken plant, there's only one unionized company in Burke County.

But it's hard to detect much sentiment in favor of Case Farms, an out-of-town company that is rarely held up as a symbol of community pride.

Well before Case Farms bought the 40-year-old poultry factory, it was considered to be "Morganton's dirty little secret," said Vail, the legal-services lawyer. "A lot of poor folks worked there, and it stank like mad."

"If the chicken plant disappeared and the Central American population disappeared at the same time, the local power structure would shed few tears," he said.

### Sympathy stirring: The migrant workers have won support in some quarters, however, especially from St. Charles Catholic Church, Morganton's only Catholic parish.

St. Charles has served as a refuge for the Guatamalans and other Latino workers, who are predominantly Catholic. The workers used the church as a strike headquarters during the work stoppages, holding meetings in the sanctuary and serving meals in the kitchen. Union organizers continue to borrow office space from the church.

It is a new role for the parish, which was never involved in labor issues and was largely unprepared for the surge of Latino Catholics. The priest, Father Ken Whittington, has learned just enough Spanish to say mass so that the Guatemalans can understand him.

Protestant churches in Morganton have mostly steered clear of the labor dispute, but Whittington says that St. Charles had a moral duty to get involved because the workers were being mistreated.

"It's hard to understand how brave they've been," Whittington said. "Many of them are illegal. They're sitting ducks in many, many ways."

"The community itself has not appreciated Case Farms," he added. "People know that Case Farms is responsible for bringing a slave labor force to town without making any provisions for them. They've given us a social problem."

In many ways, however, the conflict has spread far beyond Morganton. Increasingly, it is being seen as a test of whether unions can expand their reach among low-paid workers in the South, and whether the poultry industry can resist pressure to reform working conditions.

The Laborers, for instance, recently took the fight to Manhattan, where members picketed in front of the headquarters of the Bank of New York, which serves as Case Farms' biggest lender. In Ohio and Minnesota, citizens' lobby organizations have organized letter-writing campaigns that target grocery stores which sell Case products Even a Chicago-based clergy group, the Interfaith Committee on Worker Justice, has gotten involved. Several ministers and rabbis from around the country made a pilgrimage to Morganton last April to conduct a "fact-finding mission" on behalf of the workers.

"It's just such a compelling situation," said Kim Bobo, executive director of the Interfaith Committee. "These workers voted to form a union, and the company should have to bargain with them. That's only American."


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