THE WORKERS AT THE IBF INC. automated meat factory in Wallula, Washington wake up to a hellish job each morning. Every day, they kill, bleed, skin, debone, cut, process, and package more than 2,000 cows. And although their employer is the biggest producer of beef, pork, and "related allied products" (leather, pet foods, glue) in the world, the workers, mostly Latinos, earn about eight bucks an hour. They also pay $18.75 a month in union dues.

On June 4, frustrated with stalled contract negotiations and a hectic production pace at the Eastern Washington meat plant, shop steward Maria Martinez walked off the job in protest. Three hundred fellow workers quickly followed suit, setting up an impromptu picket line as company supervisors locked them out of the plant (and locked the others in).

The action was a "wildcat strike," meaning it wasn't sanctioned by the union representing the workers, Local 556 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Many workers at the plant feel that the union has done little for them, and has even blocked progress.

Turnover at the plant is predictably high, with about half the workers leaving every year. The work is so brutal that at one point management offered $500 to any worker who could bring in a friend tough enough to last three months.

IBF workers are demanding better wages, more benefits, and safer and more sanitary conditions at the plant. Antonio Martinez, a "skin peeler" who has worked at the plant for six and a half years, explains in Spanish that the most common injuries in the slaughterhouse are cut fingers and injuries from cows who kick when they are killed. According to Martinez, the relentless production makes things so hurried that workers sometimes get shot by the pistol used to kill the cows.

Maria Sauceda, a 41-year-old woman from Jalisco who trims meat at the plant, says, "We want to be treated with respect and dignity"--but that hasn't been the case in the five and a half years she's been there.

Sauceda recently traveled to Seattle as part of a delegation seeking support from county and state labor councils. She spoke to reporters at a June 16 press conference at Teamster headquarters in Seattle, which was fraught with tension between the two competing wings of the union: Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), the reform branch of the union that sparked the wildcat strike, and their arch-enemy, Jon Rabine, the most powerful Teamster in Seattle.

Rabine is the president of the Joint Council of the Teamsters, and one of three Western vice presidents elected last year on the James Hoffa, Jr. ticket. Hoffa, you may recall, took office after his chief rival, would-be reformer Ron Carey, was caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Carey's disqualification and Hoffa's win last December was a huge defeat for the TDU, and a great victory for old-school Teamsters like Rabine, who collects $225,000 a year from the union treasury.

The TDU are trying to capitalize on the apparent failure of the Teamsters in Wallula, in order to convince workers there that the TDU's style of unionism is better than the old-guard philosophy. Several years ago, they began working with Maria Martinez, the shop steward who started the wildcat strike, to change the bylaws so that shop stewards have to be elected. This helped the rank-and-file workers at the meat factory earn more direct representation on the job, and helped the TDU gain a few new supporters in its quest to win back what Carey lost. Martinez is now a national leader of the TDU.

Meanwhile, Rabine and his allies are trying to prove that the union has represented the meat workers well all along--even though workers at the Wallula plant earn less than almost all of the other 48 plants that IBF runs. Nearly a week after the wildcat strike, the Teamsters held an election to see how many of the workers favored striking for a better contract, and the results were convincing: three-to-one in favor of the strike. "It was an awesome feeling of emotion," Rabine said at the June 16 press conference, while TDU members cringed at his apparent move to co-opt their work. "Watching 850 to 900 people in line waiting for their opportunity to strike shows you how committed these people are to getting justice." Rabine's office did not return several calls from The Stranger.

Justice at the meat factory is still a long way away. Not long after the press conference, IBF presented its last, best, and final offer: a buck and a half per hour raise, spread out over five years. The workers on the picket line were not happy.

Support The Stranger