Union Gets Slaughtered in Vote

Intimidation at meat plant or lack of interest?
By Carly Tamborski

Ellen Dienger leads a union rally at Tri-State Beef. Photo by Jon Hughes/Photopresse.

Employees of Tri-State Beef, one of the last major slaughterhouses in Cincinnati, voted Oct. 1 to reject union membership. The vote was 38-to-9 against being represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 75. There was one void ballot in the election supervised by the National Labor Relations Board.
Workers voted from 9 to 10:30 a.m. on whether they wanted Local 75 as their agent for collective bargaining with Tri-State Beef.
“We feel like workers just aren’t ready at this time,” said Ellen Dienger, an organizer with Local 75. “They’ve been through a lot. There’s a lot of intimidation that’s been going on – people were afraid. When your employer is threatening to shut your plant down if you vote against the union and they have the police walking through there, that creates fear. They told the workers things like, ‘Well, you can vote for the union, but if you do, you’re not going to have a job anymore. A lot of them believed that and just weren’t ready. Owners say that in lots of plants, but the workers didn’t see that it was kind of a tactic of their employer to keep them from joining the union.”
Robert Runtz Sr., owner of the company, denied that any threats were made. He said the company treats employees well. It was the union, not the company, that was heavy-handed during the campaign, according to Runtz Sr.
The microwave dispute
Two days before the election, on Sept. 29, Runtz Sr. and his son, Bobby, an employee, stood outside the slaughterhouse as Local 75 held a rally outside in support of the workers.
“I don’t think my people even want this,” Runtz Sr. said. “It’s the union that keeps pushing them and harassing them – going over to their houses at 7, 10, 11 o’clock at night. They come here and bribe them with T-shirts, pop, potato chips, pretzels. On Monday morning, that woman (Dienger) was here at 4:30 a.m. giving out T-shirts.”
But the union simply tried to communicate with employees as best it could, Dienger said.
“We did our best to explain how unions worked to everyone we possibly could,” she said. “We weren’t always able to contact all the workers because we didn’t know how to get a hold of them, but we sent information and tried to talk to as many people as we could.”
Local 75 filed petitions in August asking the National Labor Relations Board to conduct an election. Microwave ovens for heating workers’ lunches seem to have been a flashpoint at the plant.
The first set of microwaves was brought in by the workers, according to Dienger. Runtz Sr. said he provided them, which wasn’t something he had to do, but he considered them a small luxury for his employees.
Over time, workers began to complain about how dirty the microwaves had become. Runtz Sr. said that, because the workers were the ones who used them, it was their responsibility to clean them.
“I kept telling them to clean them, and finally I threw them out because of the roaches,” Runtz Sr. said.
Workers told their churches about the loss of the microwaves, then brought in new microwaves that had been donated, according to Runtz Sr.
Dienger says Runtz Sr.’s version isn’t true.
“Part of the issue with the microwaves was that they belonged to the workers, but the owners threw them away,” she said.
Runtz Sr. doesn’t consider himself a difficult employer.
“We don’t enforce the rules we’re supposed to enforce,” he said. “We’re pretty lenient.”
Employees are supposed to go through a 90-day training period, when they’re paid $8-8.50 an hour, but Tri-State Beef only makes employees go through a 30-day training period, after which they’re paid at least $9 an hour, Runtz Sr. said.
Some workers arrive around 5 a.m., but most arrive at around 6:30 a.m. and leave at 4:30 p.m. They have 15-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon.
Dienger acknowledged that the workers like Runtz’s lenient attitude about scheduling, and thinks some might have voted against the union because they were afraid they would lose that flexibility.
“We told them that they’d still be able to have that type of freedom, but like I said, it was just the sheer intimidation and fear of not having a job or the fear that things were going to change,” Dienger said.
A bloody mess
A tour of the plant showed the environment to be disgusting, of course – it’s a slaughterhouse. The company and its employees would be out of work if they didn’t cut up cows everyday. The company processes 210-220 cows a day.
The smell was wretched. Inside and outside the building, flies periodically landed on arms, legs and faces. Runtz Sr. led the tour.
He walked to the microwaves, three stacked on top of each other on a shelf. Speckles of old, dry food stuck on the inside from lunch breaks past. He turned and stopped at a doorway, offering a peek inside but warning about what lurked beyond it.
The slaughter room was large and open. Blood flowed and settled in pools on the gray floor before being washed down a drain. Carcasses of cows hung upside-down from a track that danced around the perimeter of the room. Some of the bodies still had heads, while others were decapitated and skinned. Others were cut down the middle, and the innards had become outtards.
Employees seemed upbeat, joking and laughing. Granted, the owner had just walked through the door, but friendly shouting, joking and conversations between workers echoed through the building.
Runtz Sr. only allowed a few steps into the slaughter room. Walking further could contaminate the process. White aprons soiled with blood were a staple of every employee in the room, and walking just a few steps closer would’ve gotten a visitor spattered with blood as well.
Before leaving the slaughter room, Runtz Sr. thanked the workers and asked if they were happy, to which they replied with laughs and “Oh yeah.”
After showing the freezer room, walking upstairs to a hallway off the entryway, Runtz Sr. stopped a worker who was cleaning his equipment.
“Hey, Jose, do we treat you bad? Yell at you or anything?” Runtz Sr. said.
The employee smiled and shook his head, saying “No.”
That response isn’t surprising, according to Dienger.
“When the owners are standing outside the building with the workers, of course the workers feel like they have to say they love their jobs,” she said.
In a press release prior to the rally, Dienger gave a less cheery picture of Tri-State Beef.
“The plant owner and his family have been continuing intimidating and trying to divide the workers with continued threats of shutting the plant down, surveillance of workers as they talk to union organizers and forcing workers to remove union stickers that they have the right to wear,” she wrote. “The plant is approximately 70 percent Latino and the rest split between white and black Americans. Some of the reasons workers have been trying to organize is to stop discrimination in their pay and the way they are treated, to obtain living wages and fair wage increases, and to improve safety conditions at the plant.
“At least one out of every five workers have been injured on the job, and recently Tri-State Beef received a serious offense and fine from OSHA (Occupational Safety and health Administration) for not having a guard placed over the trough where the entrails are disposed without which workers could fall into and be seriously injured.”
Runtz Sr. dismissed the allegations.
“We’ve never had any problems or complaints before,” he said. “All I know is, one day a church tried to call OSHA, but I don’t care. Let them. None of what those people are saying is true.”
Like it or leave it
Recent union organizing campaigns in Greater Cincinnati have had mixed success. United Food and Commercial Workers Local 75 won an election to represent workers at American Food Group. But workers at Champion Windows turned down a bid to join the Iron Workers Shopmen’s Union.
Unions enable employees to collectively negotiate their wages and working conditions, potentially obtaining benefits they wouldn’t have received on their own. Also, union-sanctioned strikes are legal, so workers can’t be fired for striking. The possibility of strikes makes employers realize that downtime will hurt productivity, and a negotiated solution might be better for both owner and employee. Unions can offer training courses for workers to advance in their fields, encourage teamwork, give legal protection and keep workers from being exploited by their employers.
Others, however, argue that unions could raise wages and benefits to unrealistically high levels above what the market can sustain. This causes the owner to raise the costs of goods, making them unattractive to customers. Some believe unions pit employees against employers, instead of bringing the two together to create quality products. Unions also require members to pay dues.
The reason workers at Tri-State Beef rejected union membership is clear, according to Runtz Sr.
“These people are happy with what they’re doing,” he said. “I don’t know why they’d be afraid of me. I’m the easiest going guy in the world.”
But Dienger sees it differently. When working conditions are poor in any company, it’s easy for workers to complain to each other or talk to one another about it, but not many workers are OK with being the whistle-blower about the company’s anti-union campaign, she said.
“It’s definitely illegal to say they’re going to shut the plant down, but it’s hard to find employees who are willing to go and be a witness in front of their boss, in front of the labor board, and say, ‘Yes, I heard that,’ ” Dienger said. “So, if and when people are willing to do that, that’s when they could make more progress.”
But Roy Runtz, another of the owner’s sons, said the company’s workers have other choices.
“If you don’t like how you’re treated, go work somewhere else like McDonald’s or White Castle and see if they pay you more,” he said.