Teamsters target Tyson plant after COVID-19 spreads

A local union hopes the 1,450 workers at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Wallula will rethink collective bargaining after coronavirus spread through the workforce and killed at least one man.

Teamsters Local 839 is “absolutely” interested in representing Tyson’s beef plant workers, said Russell Shjerven, secretary, treasurer and business agent. 

The union represents 55 bargaining groups, including local law enforcement and UPS workers, and has about 2,100 members. It serves Benton, Franklin, Walla Walla, Columbia and parts of Umatilla counties.

Shjerven said current members are reaching out to family and friends who work for Tyson to start a process that could culminate in a union ratification vote supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.

The NLRB conducts elections if at least 30 percent of workers sign union cards. Teamsters typically requires 70 to 75 percent of workers sign a card before it presses for a vote, he said.

If the effort leads to an election, a simple majority of votes cast will decide if workers unionize. Shjerven said he hopes workers will see the benefit of having an advocate in the contrast between how Tyson handled COVID-19 in Wallula to how Lamb Weston Inc. handled it at a nearby french fry plant in Pasco, where workers are union members.

Lamb Weston enacted protective measures at the outset. When a worker tested positive for COVID-19 in late March, it shut the plant down. The company sent workers home with pay and brought in a contractor to sanitize it. It reopened in April and shut down a second time, for about four days, when a second worker tested positive.

The virus that causes COVID-19 spread further at Tyson, affecting at least 17 percent of workers and inspiring a petition to close the plant. Wallula closed for 12 days beginning in late April, after a worker had died.

As of May 12, there were 250 positive tests at Tyson, said the Benton-Franklin Health District. Only long-term and senior-care facilities had more—285 confirmed cases.

“That just shows the difference,” Shjerven said. “They just need a union.”

Lamb Weston downplayed the union’s role.

“Our response to the positive cases in Pasco was based on company protocols we put in place in early March, and although we did notify the union of our plans, the protocols were not influenced by the union,” said Shelby Stoolman, spokeswoman for the Eagle, Idaho, potato giant. “We’ve used consistent protocols to respond to cases at other facilities, both union and non-union, as well.”

Shjerven said the pandemic highlights the value of collective bargaining. Union leaders worked with employers such as UPS and law enforcement to ensure workers had masks and other protective gear and could keep six-foot distances between colleagues.

He hopes nonunion workers will see the benefit.

“I think we’re getting to the ‘The Jungle,’ ” he said, referring to the influential Upton Sinclair exposé of working conditions faced by voiceless immigrants in the meatpacking industry released in 1905-06.

“Without a union to make their employer do the right thing, many workers in essential industries in Washington are stuck relying on the goodwill of their bosses to keep them safe. Many are finding that goodwill to be in extremely short supply,” Shjerven said in a blistering April message comparing Tyson and Lamb Weston.

Tyson, based in Springdale, Arkansas, did not respond by deadline. However, it issued a letter to companywide employees on its website in which it promised to keep feeding Americans.

“At Tyson, we are proud of you, our team members, and the work you are doing to help feed America. And, we want you to know that your safety is our top priority during this national crisis,” it said.

It also discussed safety measures in its May 4 quarterly earnings report, in which it disclosed quarterly net income of $367 million on $10.9 billion in sales, compared to $430 million and $10.5 billion in sales the prior year.

Beef sales accounted for $3.9 billion of sales for the quarter that ended March 28.

“We have instituted safeguards that meet or exceed CDC and OSHA guidelines at all our facilities to protect our teams and keep our workers, families and communities safe,” wrote Chief Executive Officer Noel White.

The company forecast 2 to 4 percent revenue growth in 2020 over its $42.4 billion sales in fiscal 2019. It also announced bonuses for frontline workers.

The beef plant in Wallula plant has an on-and-off-again relationship with organized labor that predates Tyson Foods’ ownership.

Beginning in the 1980s, Walla Walla-based Teamsters Local 556 represented workers at what was then an Iowa Beef Processing, or IBP plant. Workers decertified their union of 25 years in 2005, four years after Tyson bought out IBP.

The loss of such a large shop prompted Teamsters International to merge the Walla Walla union into Pasco’s Local 839.

The plant unionized again in 2009 under the banner of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1439, a move prompted by massive layoffs two years earlier.

Tyson workers tossed UFCW in a 2015 election conducted by the labor relations board. They have been without representation since election results were certified in early 2016.

Teamsters and UFCW have a “neutrality” agreement that precludes both from trying to organize workers after a decertification vote by the other.

The neutrality phase is over, freeing Teamsters to explore how to regain its old territory in the new era of social distancing and fear of a virus that causes the deadly COVID-19.

Shjerven said it is reaching out through personal connections instead of its old strategy of knocking on doors.

“How do you do an organizing campaign when you can’t go door to door,” he asked.

The Wallula plant is one of a dozen Tyson beef facilities that collectively process 155,000 head of cattle a week. It controls 22 percent of the U.S. beef market. It is the sole Tyson facility of any kind in the Pacific Northwest.

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