UPDATED at 7:52 p.m.:
The UFCW Local 304A Union Membership voted Monday night to authorize a strike if necessary by an overwhelming majority. 98% of the vote authorized a strike if necessary.
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Negotiations between Smithfield and the meat-packing workers of the United Food and Commercial Workers union has ground to a halt at the Sioux Falls pork plant. Workers on Thursday voted to reject the contract offered by the company, and the prospect of a strike now looms.
In response to a request for comment, Smithfield External Affairs Director Andy Curliss sent this statement, issued last week and attributed to Chief Administrative Officer Keira Lombardo.
“This is an expected and routine result at this stage of an ongoing negotiation. Prior to this, both parties have been proactively planning for and scheduling additional meetings. We look forward to continued discussions as we work to produce safe, affordable and high quality food products, sustainably.
To be clear, the company’s offer to the UFCW at Sioux Falls is in full alignment with agreements already in place with the UFCW at other locations.
We again urge caution in regard to inaccurate statements by and on behalf of some union representatives, for they are a disservice to each of our employees, who have taken great pride throughout the pandemic in protecting the food supply. For instance, the union claims the company is trying to eliminate a 15-minute break. We are not. The proposal would, in fact, ensure there is a second 15-minute break for those employees who work a full, 8-hour day.
Our extensive health and safety measures, and engagement with medical experts, remains ongoing. We have continued to see results from these comprehensive protocols over a sustained period – including no reported cases of the coronavirus among our employees in Sioux Falls at this time. “Statement attributed to Smithfield Chief Admin Officer Keira Lombardo
Curliss would not provide more info on the rejected contract, saying in response to our request: “You have our statement.”
United Food and Commercial Workers local 304-A President B.J. Motley pushed back on this statement. In terms of the issue of 15 minute breaks, he says the union is fighting to keep the policy of a 15 minute break being provided to employees working over 7 hours. If the rules are changed as Smithfield wants them, Motley says the concern is that the company could work an employee 7.9 hours with no break other than their lunch break.
He also says that the fact that Smithfield’s offer may be in line with those offered to other plants doesn’t matter.
“It doesn’t matter. We don’t know and we can’t speak for other plant. We just have to speak for the plant that we represent and see the work loads and the over-worked employees. We don’t know what they produce or how they run their plant, so they can’t compare that to what’s going on at our plant.”B.J. Motley
A major thing Motley cites as a safety goal is the speed of the line when not enough workers are present. “When you’ve got overworked employees trying to do more than one job, with the speeds of the line that can cause a safety issue.”
Motley says the union is trying to do what’s in the best interest of both the plant and the workers. “We’re trying to work with the company to get a long term agreement that’s going to keep our employees and draw more employees to us so we can compete.”
When it comes to the contract dispute, he says he doesn’t understand Smithfield’s opposition to the union’s requests. “I don’t understand why they’re being more difficult during this negotiation — we want to keep the plant running forever. But you can’t do that if you don’t stay competitive with your other companies.”
“These employees have to feed their families.”B.J. Motley
It’s been over 30 years since the last strike at the plant in 1987. You can watch our coverage of that event here.