Printer Friendly

The iron rule in Omaha's jungle. (Community Organizing).

Editor's Note: In its Spring, 2002 "Special Feature" (still available) Social Policy described the outrageous conditions that characterized the midwest's meat packinghouses from the late 1800s to 1939. The emergence of a powerful union--the United Packinghouse Workers of America--, a powerful community organization--Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council--and support from the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago were described and analyzed. So were the rapid changes that took place in the industry in the 1970s, and the decline of the union. The result was a return of "the jungle" described so vividly in Upton Sinclair's 1906 book with that name.

In what follows, a stony of hope is told as Nebraska packinghouse workers, with the support of a powerful community organization, again organize against the conditions of "the jungle." Organizer Tom Holler tells of the rise of a new union. Organizer Sergio Sosa tells some of his story as a community organizer. Finally, the powerful community organization, Omaha Together/One Community (OTOC), an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation, tells its story.

By the 1970's the emergence of new methods of production enabled a small group of independent producers to challenge the heavily unionized industry. Improvements in highway transport and refrigerated trucks allowed companies to move plants into rural areas and take advantage of non-union laborers from surrounding farms. Iowa Beef Packing (IBP) introduced "boxed beef", smaller production plants and recruited nonunion immigrant labor from south Texas and Mexico. Lured by promises of high wages, benefits and company housing, IBP organized an immigration pattern that changed the demographic make up of the agricultural Midwest.

"The Jungle" re-emerged in America's heartland. Thousands of immigrants toiled at dangerous jobs in deteriorating corners of Omaha, Des Moines and their rural environs.

The players had changed but the risks and roles were familiar. Rural farmers from Eastern Europe and the southern U.S. have been replaced by landless rural workers from across Mexico and Central America, The melodic cadence of Spanish has replaced Czech, Lithuanian and Polish.

The families that built the giant packinghouse operations sold their companies' assets to faceless corporate giants like IBP, ConAgra and Cargill. As a result of the 1970's and 80's consolidation, the meatpacking industry was again controlled by a handful of companies. In Omaha they employed over 5,000 people. Few were organized or had much say about their wages, working conditions or terms of employment.

In 1997, workers from Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in south Omaha met to talk about working conditions in the meatpacking plants. Within weeks a list of concrete and specific concerns took shape:

* Line speed that is brutal and causes repetitive motion injuries;

* Lack of time clocks leading to discrepancies in pay;

* Arbitrary wage increases and job advancement, i.e. favoritism;

* Lack of adequate bathroom breaks causing workers to urinate on the job;

* Use of Immigration and Naturalization Service to intimidate workers;

* Unjust terminations after injuries aiming to minimize workers' compensation claims.

Most workers did not trust unions and all were afraid to deal with management directly. Fr. Damian Zuerlein and a delegation of parish leaders decided to act on the workers' behalf. A meeting was arranged with Angelo Fili, plant manager of Greater Omaha Packing Company. Seven hundred fifty workers labored in his plant, many were members of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish. Fili told the leaders the workers were "good kids" and plant management would take care of "their kids" without intervention from the parish. He refused their request for a tour of his production facility. Angry and insulted, the parishioners sought support from their sister congregations in Omaha Together One Community (OTOC).

Our Lady of Guadalupe was a charter member of OTOC, an Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF)-affiliated community organization. IAF was created 62 years earlier by Saul Alinsky to support his organization of communities in "industrial" areas surrounding packinghouses in Chicago IL, Armourdale KS, and Omaha NE. Alinsky believed deeply in the promise of democracy. His collaboration with John L. Lewis, a founder and head of the CIO, and Herb March, organizer with the United Packinghouse Workers of America, helped him hone the "universals" of democratic action he later outlined in Reveille for Radicals and Rules for Radicals. IAF has preserved and improved upon the craft of organizing through a rigorous process of action and evaluation. OTOC is one of 50 broad-based organizations in the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network. This is the story of the forces at work to re-create the environment of the jungle in Omaha and the determination to resist by a broad-based community organization, an heir to the Alinsky-org anized Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council, developed in 1939 near the Chicago stock yards.


In 1979, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW) was formed when the Amalgamated Meatcutters merged with the Retail Clerks Union. The new organization contained the remnants of the old Packinghouse Workers Union, which had earlier merged with the Meatcutters. UFCW local 271 in Omaha had tried unsuccessfully to organize the growing immigrant working population.

OTOC was founded in 1995 at a community convention attended by 2,000 people. From day one it was apparent the terrible conditions that existed in the packinghouses needed to be addressed. By 1998, the leadership council of OTOC, comprised of members from across metropolitan Omaha, decided to face the difficulties and challenges created by the dangerous and low wage work in the new Jungle. An alliance was formed with the Nebraska State AFL-CIO. OTOC formed a committee that examined workplace issues-immigrant workers, low wage workers and downsized middle managers from various industries participated. They held house meetings and shared stories that represented the pressures and anxieties in the new world of work. A team of inspired citizens emerged to support the meatpacking workers and a labor organizing strategy was born. IAF organizer Tom Holler hired and trained Sergio Sosa, an immigrant from Guatemala, who recently relocated to his wife's native Nebraska. Able and natural leaders among the packinghouse workers were identified through parishes and community networks such as the Latino Soccer League of Omaha. They were tested and trained and formed a workers association in the summer of 1999.

That fall, 250 workers described the conditions under which they labored to 1,000 OTOC leaders at a delegates' congress. They secured a commitment from Lt. Governor Dave Maurstad to meet with a committee of workers from each of the packing plants in Omaha. At the same time the Lincoln Journal Star newspaper ran an expose on the brutal treatment of immigrant workers in Nebraska's packinghouses. Governor Mike Johanns reacted and sent the Lieutenant Governor to investigate the claims. In March, 2000, Governor Johanns, a Republican, issued his meatpacking bill of rights. Number one on the list was the right to organize a union in the workplace. The Governor admitted the "right to organize" was already guaranteed under federal law, but promised to use his "bully pulpit" to support the workers in their battle for recognition.

Emboldened by this victory, the workers association organized a one-day clinic on repetitive motion disorders to attract the attention of workers from more packinghouses and to further educate white middle class allies from OTOC congregations.

Workers association members were skittish about unions, primarily because they were unfamiliar with them. Workers feared they would have little say and less power if they joined a union. IAF's organizers strongly recommended they affiliate with an AFL-CIO union. A meeting was arranged between leaders of OTOC's workers association and the UFCW regional director. After an intense interchange marked by the workers' expressed desire for self-determination, commitments were made to pursue a joint organizing strategy. A series of negotiations between OTOC and UFCW led to an agreement to collaborate. As part of the deal, UFCW opened an office in south Omaha in the heart of the Hispanic community's business district.

Two weeks later, 75 clergy, labor and community leaders held a press conference at the Nebraska AFL-CIO Headquarters to launch the campaign. Fr. Norman Hunke, pastor of the Roman Catholic Cathedral, announced OTOC's commitment of two full-time organizers and support of its congregations. Mark Lauritsen, UFCW International Assistant Organizing Director introduced a cadre of the union's organizers and promised the union would keep up the campaign until all the plants were under contract.

Within two days the joint organizing staff was at odds. UFCW wanted to begin the campaign with a big splash; OTOC wanted to work undercover. UFCW wanted union summer college students to handbill all the plants; OTOC wanted to do individual meetings with workers identified through the parish. UFCW said workers learn through experience; OTOC wanted to include formal training sessions. At times it seemed there was agreement on only one issue: the workers' chance to win would improve if OTOC and the UFCW could collaborate.

Over two years' time the distinct cultures managed to blend. Five National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election campaigns provided the grist to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of each other's approach. As a result of the collaboration, Local 271 won three elections, bargained two new contracts and is in the process of negotiating a third, covering a total of 700 workers. It wasn't easy.


ConAgra's Northern States Beef Plant employs almost 500 workers. Four hundred fifty work in production on the kill floor and in fabrication. Most of the jobs are low wage and filled by Hispanic and Sudanese immigrants. Forty-five are maintenance positions, the majority occupied by Anglos who receive good wages. In November, 2000, the first NLRB election of the campaign was held and the maintenance unit voted for the union 20-13.

The production workers were intimidated by the company's captive meetings, compulsory sessions held by management during working hours. Many workers had signed cards, but too few developed the confidence to lead other workers. On the day of the election 75 pastors and community leaders rallied outside the plant at 5:00 a.m. As workers arrived many had their heads down. This was not their fight--the union was defeated 238-150.

Workers at a smaller ConAgra plant were inspired by the campaign at Northern States. They filed for an election within weeks and by early December voted the union in at the meat processing plant.


From March through June, 2001, OTOC built a strong workers' organization at Nebraska Beef. A committee of 50 workers conducted house meetings with fellow employees in each department of the plant. Seventy-five percent of the workers signed authorization cards. This was a difficult test because Nebraska Beef was independently owned with a management team schooled in anti-union activity. Eight hundred workers were employed at the plant; the vast majority were immigrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Sudan and Korea. Many were in the U.S without papers; turnover at the plant was high.

On June 20, the workers voted to file for an NLRB election. OTOC used its political leverage to induce Governor Johanns and Omaha Mayor Mike Fahey to attend the press conference where UFCW called for recognition and filed for an election. A vigorous organizing drive ensued that captured the attention of the national media, with a front-page story in USA Today billing the campaign a "test case" of community and union collaboration.

On August 16, the election was held and the union was defeated. Three hundred fifty workers voted for the union; 402 votes were needed to win. The company's flagrant violations of the law led UFCW to file objections to the election with NLRB. OTOC and UFCW organizers prepared workers to testify at the hearings attended by pastors and community leaders. On January 2, 2002, the NLRB officer ordered the results voided and a new election be set. Nebraska Beef appealed; the full NLRB Board has yet to rule on the appeal.

The campaign to organize workers at Nebraska Beef was spirited and focused. UFCW and OTOC organizers formed a more cohesive unit; workers played a greater role; community and congregation support grew stronger. It still wasn't enough. Management's intimidation of workers was relentless and was augmented by a fraudulent voting scheme. The workers' organization was unable to stand up under the attacks and deliver a winning vote.


Throughout the organizing campaigns a collective of workers from five plants participated in the strategy and provided support for each other. After the Nebraska Beef campaign, ConAgra workers were ready to try again. They recognized they held 150 votes for the union--even though they did not win recognition.

Fifteen workers formed a core committee determined to organize a majority in the plant. Through January, February and March, 2002, OTOC organizers Sergio Sosa and Marcela Cervantes conducted individual meetings to identify workers capable of organizing a group of 10-15 fellow workers. Leaders emerged in each department of the plant. Olga Espinoza became chair of the kill side and Trinidad Arias the fabrication side.

Paul Turner, OTOC lead organizer, and Margaret Gilmore, chair of the work committee, organized strong support from the community. All 44 OTOC congregations received the weekly newsletter "Omaha Works" keeping thousands abreast of developments. Teams of leaders visited every merchant in the heart of the Latino commercial district, discussed the union campaign and explained that union scale wages would result in a $40 million annual increase in the community's disposable income.

Many of the businesses placed a sign in their front windows that signaled support for the union campaign. Hundreds of leaders participated in rallies at the plant gate. The workers expanded the committee, and gained confidence as their numbers grew. The Sunday prior to the vote, Our Lady of Guadalupe parish held a special Mass for the workers. As the service ended, over 100 ConAgra workers stood at the foot of the altar to receive Fr. Damain Zuerlein's blessing. The following Wednesday the workers stood up to a ConAgra vice-president during a captive meeting at the plant. All that was left was the election. That Friday the vote was 21 for the union: 251-126. Now the committee is organizing a strong negotiating team to win a fair contract.

The mistakes that were made in the losing campaign--weak evaluations of workers' interests, assigning tasks to people vs. creating leadership opportunities, and overlooking talent--occurred weeks and months prior to the actual vote. Two years of collaboration helped the joint organizing team learn important lessons and apply them in the ongoing work to build a strong local union among the immigrant workers. Workers, organizers and leaders from OTOC and UFCW evaluated each fight for recognition. IAF brought two important concepts to the overall campaign: the Iron Rule and renewed emphasis on LOCAL in Local Union.


The Golden Rule is well known, often quoted and occasionally practiced: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." An alternative formulation is less familiar, but widely recognized in lived experience: "He who has the gold makes all the rules." The IAF teaches and strives to live by the Iron Rule: " Never, ever, do for others what they can do for themselves." To build a public culture that understands it, practices it and enforces it is the key to enduring and progressive social transformation. It is the basis for IAF's long record of success.

When OTOC entered the arena of workplace organization, its leadership knew it needed to teach the Iron Rule to the workers and the union. Just as the practices of the Hebrew tradition and the early church fostered local leadership development, unions too grew out of a heritage that respected the Iron Rule--but today find it difficult to practice.

The world of low wage employment is one of command and control. It is a place where humiliation of workers becomes routine. Avishai Margalit, in his book Decent Society, points out that a decent society is a place where the institutions within it don't allow adults to treat other adults like children. When Our Lady of Guadalupe leaders first confronted the packinghouse manager, his response provided a classic example: "we take care of our kids". Parish leaders were keenly aware that the "kids" referenced were 25, 30 or 45 year old men and women-- mothers and fathers--and their neighbors.

OTOC and UFCW have struggled to implement the Iron Rule. Sometimes organizers treat workers like children in subtle and unintentional ways. We have a tendency to think for people, to act on behalf of people, to speak for people.

In the initial campaign at ConAgra's Northern States Beef plant there were 15 UFCW and five OTOC personnel hand-billing in front of the plant. (Lane Kirkland once told a senior IAF organizer, "the problem we have in the labor movement is we pay guys big salaries to pass out hand bills rather than teach workers how to organize"). Not one worker had been asked to participate. By the end of the first campaign only a few workers joined in and asked fellow workers to sign union authorization cards. Union organizers ran committee meetings and workshops were prepared by union attorneys. All provided useful insights and information. Just one problem: the workers weren't learning how to run meetings, speak publicly or inspire one another.

Evaluation of the campaign led to improvements in organizing Nebraska Beef. Workers were encouraged to organize house meetings--and they did. They were trained to run meetings--and they did. There were still times when OTOC organizers failed to act according to the Iron Rule, doing for instead of teaching how; providing answers instead of asking questions. There were times when habits of "doing for," which are prevalent in labor movement culture, overcame the new commitment to the Iron Rule which was taking hold among UFCW organizers.

A breakthrough came during the second organizing campaign at ConAgra Beef. Yes, the workers had more experience the second time around, but so did the organizers. The Iron Rule became a part of the joint OTOC/UFCW culture. Workers planned and ran their meetings, organized their own plant newsletter, planned and executed handbill events, challenged management, gained confidence AND won recognition on election day.


Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill had it right: all politics are local. People are passionate about the experiences and issues that affect them directly. When they can express their interests and hear stories of workers around them or in facilities with which they are familiar, a bond is formed. As theologian Walter Brueggemann said, to create hope from fear people need an opportunity to process their pain in public, to tell their stories and listen to others... only then does fear give way to passion that leads to action and formation of a community of interest. The absence of strong and viable local organizations of workers can quickly lead to service and maintenance and business unionism. Bureaucratic structure is soon to follow.

Strong union locals build leadership and develop a deeper sense of reciprocity with the broader community. Fr. Richard Quinn, pastor of Holy Name parish in Omaha, remembers, "The union was part of our lives." His father was a pipe fitter and a loyal member of his local union. Their family regularly attended the union's social events and family picnics. Consequently the interests of the community become part of the political life of the union. Neighborhood security, good schools, suitable public facilities and progressive taxation mattered in union life.

Lastly and most importantly, unions remain "local" when real power is vested in local leaders. They must have the ability to initiate action on the shop floor and at the negotiating table. When this occurs, whether in a labor union or church, people know it and are attracted to take part in the life of the institution.


The UFCW/OTOC partnership aims to recreate the ownership, power and participation needed to change the conditions in the packinghouses and the communities that surround them. If the UFCW/OTOC strategy successfully builds a local with broad participation of its membership and powerful immigrant leadership, the international union must create the space for them to operate. The leadership of the OTOC workers' association chose to collaborate with the UFCW largely because they respected Kevin Williamson, International Vice President, and the commitments he made to build a strong local organization in Omaha. Most important to the OTOC workers committee was practical participation in governance. Governance involves responsibility for the exercise of power--when decisions about money, strategy, leadership and collective action are invested at the lowest possible level, solidarity is strengthened.

The concentration of power in the hands of a few companies in the meatpacking industry has created a new Jungle. The OTOC and UFCW initiative is a creative experiment to revitalize union strength in a community and an industry. It will demand that churches, synagogues, community leaders and local unions operate with each other in new, different and challenging ways. OTOC believe they can and the product of its efforts will revitalize a culture of solidarity among communities and unions. The future of democracy in America may depend upon it..

Recently a retired UFCW member told a story about his respect for Jesse Prosten, legendary head of the grievance department in the United Packinghouse Workers of America. As a young union leader, the member had admired Prosten for his deep commitment to shop floor activism and development of local leadership. He said to Prosten, "You're a hero of mine--a real general!" Prosten smiled and replied, "Remember this: if you build a big enough army, all you'll need are corporals."

(Readers interested in pursing ideas developed in this article are referred to Walter Brueggemann's Hope Within History, Rick Halpern's Down on the Killing Floor, Avishai Margalit's The Decent Society, and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.)

Tom Holler is an Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) organizer and Executive Director of the Institute of Public Life, leadership development arm for IAF and labor organizations in Iowa and Nebraska. His career as an organizer began, in Detroit in 1980. He joined IAF in 1986 and was lead organizer of Communities Organized for Public Service in San Antonio, Texas. In 1992 he moved to Omaha to build Omaha Together One Community (OTOC). He also built and supervises A Metropolitan Organizing Strategy (AMOS) in Des Moines, and Community Organizing Initiatives (COIN) in rural Nebraska. He is married and has two children.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Social Policy Magazine
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Nebraska meat packinghouse workers; Omaha Together/One Community
Author:Holler, Tom
Publication:Social Policy
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2002
Previous Article:Photo essay: degradation without deskilling; twenty-five years in the San Francisco shipyards. (Labor).
Next Article:Portrait of an organizer: Sergio Sosa. (Community Organizing).

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |