Hour after hour, Antonia Lopez Paz said, her supervisor at the Koch Foods poultry plant here told women on the deboning line that production demands were so great that they could not go to the bathroom.And then 280 miles to the west, at the Gold Kist plant in Russellville, Alabama, there's this:
Sometimes she developed acute pain because she could not go, Ms. Lopez said. And one time when another woman asked for permission, "the supervisor took off his hard hat and told her, 'You can go to the bathroom in this,' " said Ms. Lopez, a Mexican immigrant who moved to this town in East Tennessee three years ago, lured by the company's promise of year-round work.
Out of her solitary complaint has grown a thriving unionization drive that fits neatly into the plans of several insurgent unions that hope to revive the labor movement by focusing on low-wage workers and immigrant workers.
Last April she quit Koch Foods because she was pregnant and the managers rejected her request to be transferred to a less rigorous position. Her job as a wing cutter was so arduous that she feared it would jeopardize her pregnancy.
Like many other workers, she disliked the 42-chickens-a-minute line speed. That pace means that many workers make 18,000 cuts during their eight-hour shifts as they prepare breasts, wings, tenders and cutlets for restaurants and consumers.
"What I didn't like is they would yell at us and tell us we're good for nothing and we didn't know how to work, and sometimes they wouldn't even let us leave to go home when we were sick," Ms. Lopez said as she nursed her month-old son. "We need to convince people to join the union, that they shouldn't be afraid because the union is the only way to make things better and stop them from mistreating at us."
Officials with Koch Foods declined requests to be interviewed. But at proceedings that the Tennessee Occupational Safety and Health Administration held in response to Ms. Lopez's bathroom complaint, Koch representatives said their supervisors were attentive to workers' concerns and gave adequate bathroom breaks.
Several Koch workers said the bathroom break situation improved after the unionization drive began, although some workers said problems remained. In August the state's safety administration dismissed their complaints for lack of evidence.
After Ms. Lopez quit, the unionization drive continued to gain momentum, fueled by the complaints about mistreatment and low wages. The top pay is $7.55 an hour, even for employees there a decade.
"That level of pay is a misery, an embarrassment, considering how hard we work," said Ernestina Gonzalez, who earns the top wage and said she could not afford the premiums for the health insurance the company offers.
One day last December, Delores Smith slipped on a greasy metal plate. Ms. Smith, who prepares boxes to hold processed chickens, crashed to the floor and was in agony, certain that she had broken her right ankle.UFCW President correctly calls these conditions "criminal." Looks like it should be a slam dunk union victory at hand. So why did I have this creepy feeling while reading the article that the workers will be threatened/bribed/intimidated into voting against the union?
She said Gold Kist's nurse did not even look at her ankle and told her that she must have sprained some ligaments and should take ibuprofen and go home. After a supervisor took her to her car, Ms. Smith looked at her ankle and saw pieces of bone protruding through her sock. When her son took her to the emergency room, X-rays showed that her ankle was broken in three places.
Ms. Smith still limps slightly, but now she has another health crisis. Her job involves removing folded-up boxes that workers upstairs send to her via a chute. Those boxes often tumble out, and one day in July the boxes knocked her eyeglasses to the floor, breaking the frames.
Looking comical in her taped-together glasses, Ms. Smith said: "They sent me home for the day, saying it was my fault. I also got a write-up. My glasses can't even be fixed."
At first, Gold Kist refused to pay for new glasses, which she said would cost $378. With her base wage of $8.40 an hour, that would exceed her weekly pay. Workers who do not arrive late or miss a day for a whole week receive a 75-cent-an-hour bonus.
The company, she said, has now offered to pay $38 toward the glasses. She hopes to get some more from workers' compensation.
Ms. Smith said she and the two other workers in her unit often could not go to the bathroom for hours at a time because the pace was so demanding and there was nobody to replace them.
"They don't respect us at all," she said. "That's why I'm praying for a union."
But who knows, maybe I'm wrong this time:
Back in Morristown, the Koch poultry workers are so united behind a union and have generated so much community support that they persuaded Koch to pledge not to mount an anti-union campaign. Several workers spoke at churches, and ministers, congregants and community groups wrote letters to the company backing unionization. The workers at Koch's kill plant and deboning plant are expected to approve unionization in mid-September.