The Stand

The Union Difference: A tale of two plants

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Teamsters at the Lamb Weston potato plant in Pasco have workplace safety and respect on the job. Nonunion workers at the Tyson beef plant down the road have Washington’s biggest COVID-19 hotspot. And they’re still open for business.

 

By JAMIE FLEMING
Special to The Stand


WALLULA, Wash. (April 23, 2020) — Even before any workers at the union-represented Lamb Weston french fry plant in Pasco, Wash., were diagnosed with COVID-19, the Teamsters union representing more than 550 workers at the plant insisted that management take steps to protect workers from the deadly virus. When a worker at the plant was eventually diagnosed with COVID-19 in late March, the plant was immediately closed and the workers were sent home — with pay — for two weeks as the plant was disinfected. After that, additional measures were taken by management and the union to protect workers.

A photo taken several years ago from inside the Tyson meat plant in Wallula.

Just 15 miles down the road in Wallula, the 1,400 workers at the nonunion Tyson Foods beef processing plant might as well be living in a different world.

The Tyson plant has become Washington state’s biggest hotspot for the COVID-19 outbreak. The Tri-City Herald reported Wednesday that there are 101 confirmed cases linked to the plant. Tragically, one of the infected employees, 60-year-old J. Guadalupe Olivera Mendoza, has died.

But as of this writing, unlike other meat processing plants that have been shut down across the country, the Tyson plant in Wallula remains open for business and reportedly continues to operate near full capacity.

The contrast between these two plants lays bare the struggle that nonunion workers have faced in advocating for their safety when company profits are on the line. The message they’ve been forced to take home over and over again: “You don’t matter.”

 


 

Worker safety was at the top of the list of priorities for Teamsters Local 839 even before the COVID-19 pandemic first touched workers at the Lamb Weston facility in Pasco. When the threat of this new virus was first identified, social distancing measures were put in place, portable cafeterias were set up, and the Lamb Weston attendance policy was modified so that workers wouldn’t be penalized for staying home if they or a loved one was having symptoms. Additional measures were also taken, all of which included the voices and ideas of the actual workers who would be affected by them.

Once the virus struck the facility directly, Teamsters made sure that workers were paid during the two weeks that the plant was closed for disinfecting; since then workers have been provided with personal protective equipment. Nurses have been on site taking temperatures and interviewing workers to assess their risk of exposure to COVID-19.

“Would they be taking care of us like this if we didn’t have a strong union presence here? I can’t say for sure, but from what’s going on at the nonunion plants around here, I guess not,” said Patricia Gilmore, a Lamb Weston worker and Teamsters Local 839 Shop Steward. “The nonunion plants are too focused on profits, so they aren’t interested in spending the money it costs to take care of their workers properly. That’s why we’re thankful to be Teamsters here.”

The situation at the nonunion Tyson Food plant seems to confirm Gilmore’s view.

As the number of infections at the Tyson Fresh Foods plant in Wallula continues to climb, a petition has circulated with more than 4,000 signatures calling for the plant to be closed for 14 days to allow workers to self-quarantine before they resume operations. In the face of this increasing pressure from the community to do something to address the outbreak, Tyson has reportedly agreed to get all employees tested for COVID-19 in the next week, which could shut down the plant “for a day or two,” according to one local health official.

“The situation at the nonunion Tyson plant is the absolute epitome of what we mean when we use the phrase ‘corporate greed’,” said Teamsters Local 839 Secretary-Treasurer Russell Shjerven. “You have close to 10 percent of your workforce testing positive for COVID-19, but it takes a community petition with over 4,000 signatures before you’ll take any real action about it? Unacceptable.”

The contrast between workers’ experiences at unionized Lamb Weston and nonunion Tyson Foods are symptomatic of a larger problem that has been exposed by this crisis: without a union to make their employer do the right thing, many workers in essential industries in Washington are stuck relying on the good will of their bosses to keep them safe. Many are finding that goodwill to be in extremely short supply.

“What we want is for workers to be safe – that’s what the labor movement has been fighting for for over 100 years,” Shjerven said. “Tyson isn’t doing nearly enough to keep their workers safe, just like we’re seeing at Amazon, where they’re doing the absolute bare minimum necessary to get the government off their back. It’s a disgrace that nonunion workers are treated this way, and we hope that people are taking home a lesson here about how much their bosses care about them: they only care about you as much as they can profit off your labor.”

Chartered in 1950, Teamsters Local Union No. 839 represents more than 2,100 hard-working people in Southeastern Washington and Northeastern Oregon.


Jamie Fleming is Director of Communications and Research for Teamsters Local 174. She can be reached at jfleming@teamsters174.org.

 


EDITOR’S NOTE — Tired of being disrespected? Do you want workplace safety and a fair return for your hard work? Get more information about how you can join together with your co-workers and negotiate a union contract that protects you and your families. Or just go ahead and contact a union organizer today!

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