St. Agnes church and its sister parish, our Lady of
Guadalupe, are the heart of south Omaha, Nebraska. Every Sunday, hundreds of
packinghouse workers -- Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans -- dress up in their
best clothes and stream through St. Agnes' doors for Spanish-language mass. The
men take off their wide-brimmed sombreros as mothers call out to little girls in
frilly dresses who run giggling through the aisles.
On the last Sunday in April, the parish priest, Father Damian
Zuerlein, began the service by addressing the subject on everyone's mind: the
coming election at the ConAgra beef plant. Standing at the altar, he acknowledged
the many ConAgra workers in the congregation. "We say, there's nothing new under
the sun -- some people have a great deal, while others have nothing," he said.
"Our community knows the unequal treatment of the poor, and the time has come to
make a decision."
Then he introduced the plant's union committee. Olga Espinoza, who works on
the kill floor, made her way to the head of the church and described the
accidents she'd seen in her eight years on the line. "We've made our decision and
we won't take one step backwards," she announced. "I want everyone to stand who's
for the union." A couple of dozen workers slowly rose from the pews.
Disappointed, Espinoza huddled at the back of the church with Sergio Sosa, a
Guatemalan organizer for Omaha Together One Community (OTOC).
As the mass concluded, Espinoza came forward again to give it another try,
asking workers from the plant to come forward to get Father Damian's blessing.
"Don't be afraid," she urged them. "This is our moment. No one's going to stop us
Slowly, out of the first pews, men and women began shuffling toward the center
aisle. In a ripple spreading to the back of the church, more people stood and
moved down toward the front. After a few minutes, more than a hundred workers
were on their feet, some with obvious trepidation visible on their faces. From
that moment on, their support for the union would no longer be a secret. "We knew
if we could stand up in the church on Sunday," Espinoza said later, "we could do
it in the plant on Monday."
And that's what happened. The following Wednesday, just two days before actual
voting was due to begin, the company made its final play. Supervisors called a
mandatory meeting, where workers would listen to a ConAgra vice president tell
them why going union was a bad idea.
A year before, the same speech by the same vice president to many of the same
workers had turned the tide for the company. Workers had decisively rejected the
union. But this time, when the kill-floor workers walked into the lunchroom, the
atmosphere had changed. Almost before the vice president began speaking,
employees in attendance say, workers were hooting and yelling.
As the vice president finished recounting how the company had lived up to its
promises of a year ago, Espinoza walked to the front and told the managers she
wanted to speak; she and her fellow activists had formulated a list of questions.
Pushing her way to the microphone, she commenced. "If you're so concerned about
us," she all but shouted, "why haven't you fixed the place where Tiberio fell and
was hurt? Are you waiting for someone else to get hurt too?" (Tiberio Chavez, a
ConAgra worker repairing broken equipment, had fallen from a precarious perch
just beneath the plant's ceiling. His forearm had to be fitted with so many steel
pins that he looked a little like the Terminator. An open union supporter, he was
At first the managers just looked at one another, each waiting for someone
else to speak. Then Maria Valentin, the community-relations coordinator, took
the microphone. "She told us she couldn't answer the question right there,"
Espinoza recalled, "but she'd give the answer to anyone who came by her office
later on. No one liked that. We began chanting, 'Now! Now!' Then they told us
there wasn't any more time for questions and to go back to work. We just hooted
That Friday, 251 ConAgra workers voted for the union, with 126 voting against.
After the vote, company officials would credit the mass for turning the tide
against them. They weren't far wrong. It was the moment when the workers' culture
and religious faith combined to create a sense of security that couldn't easily
be broken by the normal repertoire of anti-union tactics.
But the mass was also a visible symbol of something deeper: a long-term
coalition between a union and a community-based organizing project, with a goal
that goes far beyond organizing just that one plant. The United Food and
Commercial Workers (UFCW) and Omaha Together One Community want to reorganize the
almost entirely immigrant workforce in the almost entirely nonunion meatpacking
industry throughout the city. And what works in Omaha may work elsewhere too, in
the dozens of one-plant packinghouse towns, where pigs and cows get killed and
sliced up into what's for dinner in America.
The people who do that work are, and have always been, immigrants. For a
hundred years, straight through the 1970s, those workers were overwhelmingly
European, with smaller numbers of African Americans, especially in the South.
Today, Spanish is the language on the floor of almost every plant. Most workers
come from Mexico, with smaller numbers from Central America. Refugees from
Bosnia, Vietnam, and even the Sudan are a growing presence in some areas, but the
vast majority of meatpacking workers are Latinos. A huge demographic shift has
taken place in the meatpacking workforce nationally, and small towns throughout
the Plains states and the South suddenly have barrios, Mexican grocery stores,
and radio stations that play norteño and banda music.
The language of organizing has changed. The problems haven't.
Meatpacking unions in Omaha go back more than a hundred years,
and their uneasy relationship with immigrants and workers of color is almost as
old. The city's meatpacking industry was built at the turn of the century by
immigrants from Bohemia, Poland, and Lithuania. Because they were Catholics, the
Church played a major role in their battles even then. In the strike of
1921-1922, the priest of the Polish church in south Omaha spoke for the strikers.
Their main organizer, John Blaha, ran meetings in Czech as well as English.
African-American workers were already a significant presence in the plants, and
some were elected officers of local unions.
In the late 1930s, the organizing drives of the United Packinghouse
Workers of America (UPWA) succeeded in unionizing the four largest packers of the
day. The union, one of the most radical in the Congress of Industrial
Organizations (CIO), was built on a tradition of rank-and-file democracy,
industrial unionism, and militant struggle. The model worked: Master contracts
covering beef and pork processors set a wage standard above that of most
The UPWA viewed unions as a social-movement, fighting for community demands
outside the plant as well. Locals organized antidiscrimination committees in the
plants and challenged the color lines barring blacks from many bars and
restaurants in south Omaha (policies were later labeled "Communist" in the
Eventually the UPWA merged with its onetime American Federation of Labor (AFL)
rival, the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen, and then with the Retail
Clerks International Union, to form the modern UFCW. Each successive merger
created a larger but somewhat more conservative union. But the ideas of social
movement unionism left a lasting imprint in the meatpacking unions -- one that
the UFCW/OTOC coalition hopes to revive.
By the 1990s, when Latino immigrants began flocking to the plants, the
industry had become unrecognizable. From 1980 to 1982, during the most serious
recession since the thirties, 30 factories were shuttered and contract
concessions became the order of the day. From the wreckage emerged a new group of
meat conglomerates -- led by Tyson, ConAgra, and Cargill -- that today account
for nearly 80 percent of all the cattle and 60 percent of the hogs slaughtered in
the country. In the 1980s, these new conglomerates built new plants far from the
big cities, and cut costs by attacking the union. Strikes such as the one against
Hormel in Austin, Minnesota, rocked the meatpacking world, as workers sought to
hold on to the master agreements. Today, though the UFCW continues to represent
60 percent of the meatpacking workforce nationally, its power to set wage
standards has badly eroded.
The nature of the work inside the plants has changed, too. Prior to 1980,
animals were slaughtered in urban packinghouses. Quarters of meat were then
shipped to markets, where skilled butchers cut them into pieces for consumers.
The new companies changed that system dramatically. After slaughter, animals are
now cut apart on fast-moving disassembly lines, where an individual worker might
cut out just one bone, hundreds of times a day. Boxes of meat sliced into
consumer-sized chunks are then shipped to market. The speed of the lines in the
plants increased enormously, and as workers repeated the same motions over and
over again, injury rates skyrocketed. (Jorge Ramirez, a ConAgra worker who turned
out cartoons for the organizing committee's newsletter, produced one celebrated
drawing that featured a worker chasing a carcass down the line in a little car
and, as the line's speed control moves from "fast" to "over the top," running
over another worker in his haste to keep up.)
In Omaha today, the old monopolies have disappeared, their places
taken by the new nonunion plants of ConAgra, Greater Omaha Packing Company,
Nebraska Beef, QPI, and MPS. Hourly meatpacking wages had fallen to $4 below the
manufacturing average by 1999. The entry-level hourly wage in ConAgra's Omaha
plant is $9.20, not much higher than the meatpacking wage of 20 years ago.
The low wages are partly a function of the companies' immigrant
strategy. They've sent recruiting teams to Los Angeles and other established
immigrant communities, advertised on radio stations along the Mexican border, and
sent buses to pick up recruits as they cross over.
Nebraska Beef was one of the most active recruiters. Last year the Justice
Department indicted four upper-level managers for giving workers false
immigration documents. U.S. District Judge Richard Kopf dismissed the charges in
April, ruling that the witnesses who might have testified for the company were
deported in an immigration raid on December 5, 2000.
On that day, Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents showed up at
the south Omaha factory. Supervisors stopped the line and herded workers into the
lunchroom where the agents were waiting. In some departments, company managers
helped workers escape, according to Jaime Arias, an employee then inside the
plant. He and his friends hid in a cooler among the animal carcasses. "Some
people stayed there for five hours," he recalls, "and when they finally came out
they were almost dead from the cold." In total, 212 workers -- out of a workforce
of less than 1,000 -- were picked up in the raid.
Managers told the remaining workers to report the following day, but some were
afraid to return; they were fired. According to Arias, the company then increased
the workload of its remaining employees.
With worker discontent at Nebraska clearly running high, the UFCW/OTOC
alliance targeted the company for unionization, and encountered an aggressive
anti-union campaign. "One supervisor told me that if we had a union, the company
wouldn't make enough money to keep all the workers," says Jose Juan Robles, one
of the union's leaders. He heard other threats of closure and blacklisting, and
promises of wage increases to those who voted against the union.
In an election held last August, the union lost 452-to-345. The National Labor
Relations Board, however, invalidated the results after documenting company
misconduct. After the campaign was over, Robles was fired. (Telephone calls to
Nebraska Beef seeking comment were not returned.)
It quickly became apparent to Omaha's union organizers -- as to their
counterparts elsewhere -- that the old models of organizing are not very
successful when dealing with this new workforce. The standard speeches about
wages and benefits don't inspire workers, who are still sending money to their
families back home, to risk their jobs, much less face deportation. Confronted
with a brick wall, OTOC began developing a new model: a community-based approach
In 1990, Father Zuerlein requested and received the position of
pastor at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in south Omaha. Zuerlein was a leading
figure among a group of priests who shared a background in liberation theology
and a commitment to help organize the communities of Latino meatpacking workers
throughout the Midwest. Zuerlein soon hooked up with Tom Holler, who'd started
OTOC as a project of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF). Founded in the 1940s
by organizer Saul Alinsky, the IAF started life by organizing meatpacking workers
in Chicago's back-of-the-yards neighborhoods. Early on, it developed a strategic
alliance with the Church in struggles for civil rights and economic justice. But
workplace organizing and union alliances are not typical activities for most IAF
In 1998, as OTOC was groping for an effective strategy, Zuerlein and
Holler hired a new organizer, Sergio Sosa. For more than a decade, before moving
to the Midwest, Sosa had been a seminarian in Guatemala and an active member of
the movement that organized Mayan peasants during that nation's genocidal war. In
Omaha's meatpacking plants, Sosa encountered an immigrant Latino workforce
consisting of both documented and undocumented workers, often in the same
families, who all formed part of a broad network of relationships. The OTOC
strategy called for using those networks to organize first outside the plant --
setting up soccer leagues, for instance.
Sosa began holding one-on-one meetings with workers, as he put it, "to create
relations with people, discover their interests, look for talents, identify
leaders and connect those leaders in order to begin to organize. We know who
people pay attention to, and where they go on Sunday after mass. We spend time
together. But I think the art is to connect this whole cultural structure of
social networks with African Americans, with Anglo Saxons and others, in order to
create power. Latinos can do many things and this is our moment. But we can't do
The first OTOC committees, however, were wiped out by Operation Vanguard, the
1999 INS raids that targeted every meatpacking plant in Nebraska. It was during
the ensuing controversy that OTOC developed its relationship with the UFCW. These
were, however, two very different cultures. At first, Holler and Zuerlein had
trouble connecting with local UFCW officials, who "wanted to know who we were and
why we were so interested in working with them," Zuerlein recalls. But the UFCW
was changing. At the time of the raids, the Omaha local criticized the INS for
failing to allow the union to represent workers caught up in the process. In
other parts of the country, though, the UFCW still supported employer sanctions,
which make it a crime for undocumented immigrants to hold a job.
At the same time, other unions with heavily immigrant memberships were
spearheading a campaign that led the AFL-CIO to repudiate its historic support
for sanctions and to call for their repeal. Partly as a result of the union's
experience in Omaha, UFCW Secretary-Treasurer Joe Hansen announced that the UFCW,
too, supported that call.
For their part, the Omaha workers didn't leap into the union's arms. After an
extended colloquy with UFCW officials, and a contentious debate among themselves,
the OTOC committee voted 13-to-7 to join forces with the union. Those who voted
no left OTOC, but an alliance -- of equals -- had been struck between the
community organization and the union.
As the alliance took shape, worker committees were organized in each of the
separate plants. Carl Ariston, the organizer assigned by the UFCW to the Omaha
campaign, credited the one at ConAgra with the May election victory. While the
UFCW had four organizers assigned to the campaign, and OTOC two more, the
campaign wasn't an organizer-driven one (unlike many of those currently mounted
by unions). "The committee did most of the work of [getting workers' signatures
on union-recognition] cards and getting people active, talking inside the plant
and going with organizers on house calls," says Ariston. The committee also wrote
and distributed an in-plant newsletter and broadcast union appeals on
The mass, too, was the workers' idea, according to Zuerlein. "They needed a
spiritual space where they wouldn't be afraid, and [they knew that] what we're
doing has a long tradition. We're showing them even if they lose their job,
they're part of a broader community that will support them."
Although employers often refuse to sign contracts with unions
that their employees have voted for, there's a good chance that workers will be
able to negotiate a first contract with ConAgra. Seventy-eight ConAgra plants are
already under contract, Ariston notes, "and the company doesn't look at unions as
evil." At Nebraska Beef, though, getting a first contract may require a war.
But beyond these immediate contract problems, two larger dilemmas are
rapidly approaching. As more Omaha plants are organized, hundreds of new Latino
members are going to pour into UFCW Local 271. Since the closure of Omaha's older
plants, the union now has fewer than 1,000 members, most of whom aren't
immigrants and don't speak Spanish. Its new members come to the union after an
organizing drive that they themselves carried out and helped to steer. They are
not likely to be content simply paying dues as passive members. "These immigrant
workers are going to be a challenge for the union," Zuerlein predicts. Ariston
responds that the UFCW is sending teams of trainers to establish a strong
rank-and-file steward structure that will represent workers on the factory floor.
Securing wage increases is the union's other major challenge. The new members'
expectations will run headlong into an industry accustomed to relying on
immigrants for cheap labor. "By bringing in minority workers," Ariston says, "the
companies feel they don't have to be real about wage rates. Because many of these
workers have had to live with a lot less, the companies believe they'll be
satisfied with less."
So the union is confronted with a fight that is both a challenge and an
opportunity. Should it fail to mount a successful drive for dramatically better
wages and conditions, alliances such as the one with OTOC won't be enough to win
the long-term loyalty of this new workforce. But if the Omaha model succeeds --
and spreads to the other packinghouse towns of the Plains states and the South --
the union's new participatory methods of organizing and its broad social agenda
may just provide the basis for a major challenge to the entire low-wage economy
Those were the basic approaches of the UPWA in its heyday, 60 years ago, when
it won master agreements and organized virtually the entire industry. That
history may be coming to life again in Omaha.