Saturday, July 13: We were driving back to Legion Park in Woodburn after having visited three different farms on the Walk for Farmworker Justice when we passed the Smucker's plant. Outside the gates were strikers. We pulled over immediately to find out what was going on. Up ahead we saw the Walk buses pulling over, too. "Oh good," I thought. "We definitely must stand in solidarity with these folks."
My videographer buddy was out of the truck first and in the blink of an eye was talking to the men holding signs, camera up and tape rolling. (We'll be uploading some clips soon.) We talked to two of the workers about why they were striking.
The first guy told us they were with the Teamsters Local #670. Why were they striking? Over health and welfare issues. Smuckers management wants the union to accept a contract that drastically raises the amount that workers must pay every month for their health benefits. For example, someone making $6.75/hr at the plant will have to pay $160/month for their benefits, which is prohibitively high. These costs will be going up 5-8% next year under the contract's terms. "Especially if you have a family, there's no way you can do that."
The second guy said that under the new contract, they will basically be taking a pay cut. Though they are receiving a raise under its terms, the increased cost of their health insurance premium eats it away.
He also mentioned that they have other greviances; namely, forced 12-hour shifts. Workers are "threatened with insubordination" if they don't want to work that long. "You have no choice -- you have to work."
Smuckers has also been bringing in temporary workers. This allows them to avoid paying for benefits altogether, and to discourage further unionizing of the plant. But temps don't do as good a job; they don't have the experience or know-how that long-term employees have.
This guy has worked there 24 years. "I can run any piece of machinery and supervise. Everything but maintenance. There ain't a piece of machinery in this plant I don't know."
We asked him how Smuckers has changed over 24 years. "They've become more hostile to their employees," he said. "They don't treat us as good as they used to. We don't dare to trust anything they say. It's gotten real bad. I consider it a hostile work environment."
"When I started here there were 5-7 managers. Now we have over 11. `Too many chiefs and not enough Indians'." My videographer buddy wondered aloud whether having so many managers was the reason they couldn't pay workers better. The worker nodded. "They get a 5% raise, bonuses, profit-sharing. If I make a special effort to save them some money, I see nothing from it. They get all of it."
The local has filed a greviance with the National Labor Relations Board about their issues with Smuckers. That greviance is in process and they are waiting to hear back about it.
With the health of the economy rapidly failing, a strike is a bold move. "I know we're taking a big risk," the worker said, "in the economy we're in, but we gotta put down our foot sooner or later. Corporate greed is getting us too bad. Everytime you read the paper, some other corporatino is doing the Enron bit. It's kinda scary."
Despite these worries, the worker told us they plan to strike as long as they can. "Hopefully we can get some justice here."
The strike is definitely affecting Smuckers. "The facility is running ata diminished capacity. There's no way they [temp worker scabs] can run the machinery as fast as we can. They don't have 15 years experience running the drum driver, which I do. I know it's not running because if it was running you'd smell the fruit, and it would smell great." He smiled. "It'd make you hungry just smellin' it."
According to this worker, Smuckers has been moved equipment out of the plant over the previous two days too bring to another plant "up north" who can pick up the production that this plant isn't doing. It's harvest season for some berries now, and others will be coming in soon, and Smuckers doesn't want to miss out. We had seen some of the fields that morning, where migrant farmworkers make just 15 cents a pound.
One of the Walk participants talked to the Teamsters about the farmworkers, and attempted to draw the connections between their struggles for justice. One of the workers understood, but the other appeared not to have thought about it that way before. Which is why it was so great that the Walk for Justice people stopped here.
The PCUN workers and Teamsters had a brief interchange and wished each other luck with their fights.
Here, Dan Bryant, chair of the Farmworker Justice Coalition, holds a Teamsters picket sign. He understands the importance of solidarity.
The Teamsters have been receiving a lot of support from the community. More than one of them remarked on how many people honk, wave, and stop by. Hopefully, this support can expand to include the farmworkers, now that they have met each other. Smuckers, an large Ohio-based corporation, is involved in the oppression of both of them.
Inspired by the solidarity at their picket, about a dozen of the Teamsters joined PCUN and its supporters for the march through Woodburn that afternoon. Some 200 people marched through town chanting in Spanish and attracting quite a bit of attention. Seeing the two labor causes brought together was inspiring. I wish the best to all of them, and hope that other groups that have so far been uninvolved or even unintroduced might begin to meet and cooperate in this way. "The people united will never be divided" is a reality that we can build together. I saw a little step in that direction in Woodburn on Saturday.