How a community of Guatemalan immigrant poultry workers triumphed in one of the fiercest anti-labor corners of the nation.
Originally published in The Nation.
Morganton, North Carolina
THE CHOIR LOFT SWELTERS. It’s 5 o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, and all the heat from a summer day in the North Carolina foothills seems to have refracted through the stained-glass windows onto the second floor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church. The portable fans are going full force, but they barely cool down the singers and guitar players in the balcony, a dozen or so young Guatemalan men offering silent prayers before an Anglo priest begins mass. For a moment there’s silence. Then the guitars sound, and the singers join in:
Ilusiones y esperanzas
la alegría de vivir
todos juntos como hermanos,
caminando hacia ti
(Illusions and hopes
the joy of living
all together like brothers,
walking toward you)
Five years ago there was no Spanish mass in this manufacturing town of 16,500 at the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains. The town’s first wave of Latinos crammed into the small “cry room” at the back of St. Charles, watching from behind plate glass. But then more and more Guatemalans, and a smaller number of Mexicans, followed their ilusiones y esperanzas here. Case Farms, a company that slaughters chickens, had spread the word that indoor work, “clean work,” was available at its Morganton pollería. Hundreds of Latinos saw an escape from hot summers of picking fruit and vegetables throughout the South.
What they found was a different kind of torment. The $6.15-an-hour work included hanging live chickens on steel hooks, killing them, gutting them and hacking up the bodies at frenetic speed. At the same time that the new residents took pleasure in a terrain and climate so like Guatemala’s—even urging relatives and friends to join them—they recognized that life here would not be tolerable unless they re-created the social institutions that form the basis of Guatemalan society. They started soccer teams and mutual-aid societies, gathered on Sunday afternoons at El Chapala restaurant and turned out en masse for cleanup days at St. Charles. They made the church their spiritual refuge and their meeting place, laying the ground of community from which to organize against working conditions at the pollería that brought them to town in the first place.
Long before any union came to town, the workers here organized the plant, taking action at the point of production and in the community. Eventually they voted to affiliate with the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). After more than two years of trying to force Case Farms to the table, they won a major victory on October 23: The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the union vote and ordered the company to negotiate.
This organizing triumph has happened in one of the fiercest anti-labor corners of the nation. Only 4 percent of North Carolina’s workers are unionized. The rate is even lower in Morganton, where the powerful furniture industry has exploited the people’s traditional mountain self-reliance to keep out unions. Combine that with the fact that some Case Farms workers are undocumented, that many speak no English, that their native languages are various indigenous dialects with Spanish only secondary, and the result is a struggle that has survived incredible odds.
“It’s a historic movement, especially in this state,” says Juan Ignacio Montes, who inspects chickens at Case Farms. “We’re teaching the people around here that we want to have a change.”
It’s not just in North Carolina. Across the country, Latin Americans have become one of the most militant new forces for worker rights. In Los Angeles, janitors have held rowdy demonstrations inside building lobbies to force commercial landlords to hire union workers, most of them immigrants. On both coasts, asbestos strippers have protested dangerous working conditions. Casino workers, drywall hangers, construction laborers—Latinos have some of the strongest voices in labor.
“There’s a real move afoot,” says John Jordan, who helped organize Case Farms for LIUNA. “In this country, we’re so used to thinking about what we can’t do. These guys are like any immigrants; they didn’t come here to sit in one place. There’s got to be improvement in their lives—and in this case, collective action is going to do it. There’s a real sense of possibility.”
EVEN AFTER A LONG WORKDAY, sitting shirtless in a plastic chair in his concrete carport, Felix Rodriguez radiates that sense of possibility. Five-foot-four and slender, with straight black hair that cascades past his shoulder blades, Rodriguez was one of the most outspoken workers until he was fired last spring. He was one of two workers to stage a hunger strike last year. “If we didn’t offer our lives,” he says, “nothing would change.”
Those words sound romantic, maybe even naive, in the United States. But Rodriguez grew up in a country where, since a U.S.-sponsored coup in 1954, hundreds have been murdered, tortured or disappeared for trade-union activity. But “despite the level of oppression, there are always struggles where workers rise up and won’t take any more,” says Stephen Coats, executive director of the U.S./Guatemala Labor Education Project. And that tradition of solidarity extends well beyond the workplace. Guatemalans have a history of building strong community institutions—particularly in the region surrounding Aguacatán, where Rodriguez and many of Morganton’s new immigrants come from.
Spend an evening with Felix Rodriguez and he’ll keep harking back to the notion of community struggle—how it suffused even his childhood. Growing up in a two-room adobe house in the countryside, Rodriguez preferred his morning studies to his afternoon farm work. “Most people in the town didn’t know how to read and write, and they didn’t know how to handle money,” he recalls. “It made me happy when I could really help them.” The year he graduated from high school, his family’s garlic crop was bountiful, allowing him to attend a local teachers’ institute. Weekends, he helped local farmers form a cooperative to sell their garlic and onions rather than depend on middlemen who bought the crops cheap and resold them for exorbitant profits. Rodriguez wrote letters, counted money and did arithmetic.
Then his mother developed a stomach illness, and medical expenses ate up his tuition. “It seemed like something died in me,” he says. What was worse, the garlic crop failed. The bank extended credit, but his family had no way to repay the loan. Sending their 20-year-old son to join his older brother in the States seemed like the only way out of debt. In December 1994, Rodriguez left home with thirteen others, traveling on foot and by bus for almost three weeks. He tunneled under a fence at the border south of Phoenix before joining his brother at the pollería in Morganton.
It was Rodriguez’s first time working in a factory. By the end of his first day, his wrists were swollen. By the second, he was in severe pain. And by the third, he could barely grip the knife to cut drumsticks and wings. Case Farms denies that it runs its lines too fast, saying that the factory complies with federal standards. But both union and nonunion workers have reported repetitive-motion injuries, a problem that plagues the entire industry.
When Rodriguez sought help for his injury, the company nurse could offer only aspirin and a massage. He asked for a transfer to another work area but didn’t get one for a year. Eventually the swelling subsided, but he couldn’t ignore the other problems all around him, conditions documented by workers, union officials and religious leaders. Workers were forced to pay for safety equipment. They complained about dangerously high carbon dioxide levels, which hurt their eyes and made them dizzy. They weren’t permitted to rotate roles to reduce repetitive-motion injuries. And they made less money than recruiters had promised.
Case Farms spokesman Ken Wilson calls these allegations union fabrications. But the complaints come from nonunion workers too. “If you worked too long there, you got sick,” says former employee Santos Mejia Vicente, a marimba player who now directs the choir at St. Charles. “Of course the machines break. Can you imagine the humans? The humans break too.”
In May 1995, three workers walked off the shop floor to talk to management about the line speeds and lack of bathroom breaks. Case Farms promptly had them arrested. Throughout the plant the talk turned to striking. “I was scared and I was angry, because they were treating people of my race with so much disrespect,” says Luis Alberto Gonzales, a leader in the struggle.
Father Ken Whittington, the pastor at St. Charles, agreed to let a small group of workers meet at the church the following Sunday night, Mother’s Day, to plan a response. When he returned from dinner with his mother, workers had packed the building’s social hall, where they voted overwhelmingly to strike. The next day, 300 of Case Farms’ 500 employees showed up at the plant with picket signs. Their strike lasted four days, and all that week the church teemed with activity. “It felt like we had started something,” says Rodriguez, “and we had the hope of winning.”
THIS WASN’T WHAT CASE FARMS EXPECTED when it started hiring Latin Americans. Although the company denies it, numerous reports indicate that it sent recruiters to Florida with fifteen-passenger vans and promises of good work. “Case Farms went to churches in areas where they knew Guatemalans were being assisted with asylum applications,” says Phyllis Palmieri, a Morganton labor lawyer. Back then, immigrants automatically received temporary work permits when they applied for asylum. “Case Farms took advantage of that.”
From then on “the word was out,” says Palmieri. “This is a community where word of mouth is the best way to get anything out. The wave became so overwhelming; people were even coming from Guatemala.” That tight network gave Case Farms a steady supply of hard workers, but the company failed to understand that the same bonds of solidarity could be used against it.
Twice in the early nineties workers had walked off the job. But it was the 1995 wildcat strike that attracted the attention of organized labor. Within a week, the Laborers’ union had dispatched one of its up-and-coming organizers, Yanira Merino, to Morganton. Born in El Salvador, Merino had worked in both her native and adopted countries for human rights groups associated with the F.M.L.N. In the United States, she had been beaten, raped and had her palms carved with the initials E.M. (for escuadrones de la muerte, death squads). More recently, LIUNA had recruited her in its effort to reach out to low-paid Latino workers.
Merino was joined in Morganton by a half-dozen others from the union. From the start, it was clear that this was no ordinary struggle. “The place was already organized,” says John Jordan, now an independent labor consultant. “The Laborers’ put the vote through and gave them a formal structure, but they organized themselves.”
Nevertheless, a union victory was hardly assured. Many workers had crossed the border illegally, and they feared that faced with a union election the company would retaliate by reporting them to immigration. And the Guatemalans had memories of government-sponsored terrorism back home. “They would come out with questions like ‘Can the police arrest me if I organize for the union? Can the police put me in jail?'” says Merino.
Still, two months after the strike, the workers voted 238-183 for the union. The victory was announced at church, to much cheering. Recalls Rodriguez: “That was the happiest day of my life.”
THE HAPPINESS WAS SHORT-LIVED. Case Farms refused to bargain. It was as if the election had never taken place.
Case Farms claims the vote was illegitimate, that the Laborers’ distributed a flier during the campaign “carefully crafted to instill fear among Hispanic voters.” “The [workers] were misled, they were threatened and they were intimidated,” says company spokesman Wilson. Nonetheless, the National Labor Relations Board certified the election, and in March 1996 ordered Case Farms to bargain in good faith. The company took the case to the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, apparently hoping to delay contract negotiations for months or even years.
To force those negotiations, the union ran a campaign linking labor, religious and consumer groups across the country. Ohio Citizen Action urged Ohio supermarkets that carry Case Farms chicken to put pressure on the company. In April 1996, the Chicago-based National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice sent a fact-finding delegation of thirty to Morganton. They spent an evening listening to workers, then tried to visit with management, only to be turned away. “So we knelt in prayer in front of the Case Farms security guards and state police with a riot dog standing at attention,” recalls Sister Evelyn Dettling of the Glen Mary Commission on Justice in Neon, Kentucky. “At the midmorning break, young workers came out to talk…. One man testified, ‘We are standing together at the plant. If they fire us for talking to you, the others will shut down the line.'”
Yet despite the national outreach, the union has not kept a steady presence here. That’s partly because it is more accustomed to top-down organizing of construction sites in union towns. Typically, the Laborers’ approach contractors and ask for neutrality agreements: In exchange for the employers’ promise not to challenge the elections, the union offers safety training, pensions and other amenities. As an old-line union currently under a Justice Department order to rid itself of mob influence and undemocratic practices, the Laborers’ had little idea what it meant to go into a hot shop with militant workers and an intransigent company, and make the commitment to a protracted campaign.
“They had no plan, no perception of the need and no ability to sustain the staffing,” says one union insider. “It went month to month: ‘Oh, we have to sustain our relationship to the workers for another month? Then we’ve got to put another organizer in there.'” Organizers were sent to Morganton and then yanked out. “I really feel like we’ve been toyed with,” says one Morganton activist. “These are people who should know what commitment is about, but have been unwilling to commit, people who should know what sacrifice is about, but have been counting pennies.”
Union spokesman David Roscow says that frustration is displaced: “We’ve shown a commitment to these workers, and we’ll continue. The company should be the one being criticized.”
THE OCTOBER COURT RULING finally opens the door to collective bargaining, and labor organizers consider it a significant victory for all poultry workers. But in Morganton, the union members are proceeding cautiously, even though Case Farms has said it probably won’t appeal the decision. “As far as they are concerned,” Father Whittington says, “the Anglos can talk up the court ruling, but it’s still a piece of paper to them.” Even so, union members have been discussing the impending negotiations and have begun polling their co-workers about contract priorities. Juan Ignacio Montes, the chicken inspector, says the demands will surprise no one: “The people are asking for more money. We want free safety equipment, more vacations, more sick days. The company is going to fight back. But we’re going to make them sign the contract.”
To workers like Montes, just as important as the upcoming contract talks is the organization they’ve built—a true union with an identity independent of LIUNA that has helped them keep the faith during the long wait. During an August 1996 strike, the fourth to date, Rodriguez and Luis Alberto Gonzales stopped eating for 124 hours to protest the company’s intransigence. “The hunger strike emphasized that we were being mistreated,” says Gonzales. “I was into it with all my heart. I was calling attention for all the people, not just for me.”
And the shop-floor actions have continued. “Any time there was an abuse, we stopped working,” says Rodriguez. He and other union supporters were at the head of the lines, which allowed them to control production. “Since we didn’t cut the wings and drumsticks, no one could do anything else,” he says. Even since his firing the workers try to have an action like that about once every two weeks, according to Merino. Such protests have had some effect, including a 70-cent hourly wage increase.
As vital as the work actions are the community events that take place every week: the Spanish mass, the soccer games, the fundraising effort to buy kneelers for a church back home. “What keeps their spirit up has very little to do with the workplace,” says Father Whittington. “What keeps them up is their own sense of the community. That structure is always there, so that when the labor issue comes in, it rides on the coattails of that.” Whittington’s church is regularly filled with Guatemalans baptizing their children, attending parties—and talking about the union cause.
On a scorching afternoon this past July, more than 150 workers crowded into the church social hall again, this time to mark the second anniversary of the union vote. There, LIUNA officials promised continued support. “I know that you workers feel from time to time that we forgot about you,” said international vice president Jack Wilkinson. “We have not.” He and other union leaders vowed to help workers however they could to win a contract.
But who’s really helping whom? Even union activists concede that the Morganton workers give more than they get, and teach more than they learn. The workers have taught the union that jacked-up campaigns to win elections aren’t enough, that real victories come from long-term community efforts, built slowly and solidly so that the passage of time can’t erode them.
“I never believed LIUNA and the Interfaith Committee campaign was ever really about helping Case Farms workers,” says John Jordan, the former Laborers’ staffer. “Rather, I believe Case Farms workers are helping LIUNA organizers, priests, ministers and many others rediscover what it means to work with courage and integrity.”