Labor negotiations escalate at South Dakota pork plant


Las Vegas Sun

Friday, June 4, 2021 | 12:40 p.m.


SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — In a sign of meatpacking workers becoming emboldened by the pandemic's health threats and economic repercussions, the union at a South Dakota pork processing plant that experienced a bad coronavirus outbreak last year has overwhelmingly rejected a contract offer from Smithfield Foods and will next move to bring the prospect of a strike to the negotiating table.


The Sioux Falls chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said 99% of union members who voted on the new contract offered from Virginia-based Smithfield Foods rejected it. The escalating labor negotiations are a sign of what might be a renewed boldness among workers in the physically demanding meatpacking industry. Through the pandemic, workers have organized around pushes for workplace safety and are now navigating an economy where some slaughterhouses, desperate for employees, have suddenly boosted wages.


Smithfield Foods downplayed the contract rejection, saying it was a “routine” part of negotiations. But the UFCW plans to vote Monday on whether to authorize a walkout. Union leaders said they view striking as a last resort, as they push for for a base wage of $19 an hour to match the rate at a JBS pork plant 70 miles (113 kilometers) away in Worthington, Minnesota.


Slaughterhouse jobs usually offer elevated wages and benefits in exchange for the bloody, back-breaking work on butchering lines. But the wage gap is closing between meatpacking jobs and those at fast-food chains or retail stores, union leaders warned. They said that employees are exhausted after filling voids in the workforce during the pandemic while keeping up with robust demand for meat.


“We've got overworked employees,” said B.J. Motley, the union president. “We've got people on the line with extended hours and now they're trying to take away their break.”


He said the company plans to eliminate a 15-minute break period, but Smithfield pushed back on that assertion. Keira Lombardo, a spokeswoman for the company, said...