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UFCW organizing Tyson Foods meatpackers in Columbus Junction

Kuelo .jpg
Zachary Oren Smith
IPR News
Simplice Kuelo is the president of UFCW Local 431. He speaks to Congolese residents of Johnson County after calling for the county to reopen its Direct Assistance Program last November.

A labor organizing effort is underway at Tyson Foods’ 1,400-employee plant in Columbus Junction. An unknown number of workers have signed union authorization cards with the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 431. And the meatpacking giant is already facing allegations of unfair labor practices.

Activist group Escucha Mi Voz said the company told workers in a memo that signing a union card signed away their right to continue working at the plant.

Days later, the company posted another memo dated Jan. 17 to a bulletin board apologizing for what it called a “miscommunication in our translation.” Many workers at the plant speak English as a second language and benefit from translation into Spanish, French and other languages. The memo emphasized that there wouldn’t be illegal retaliation against organizing workers.

Tyson spokesperson Liz Croston wrote in a statement further clarifying the company's position that workers have the right to choose whether they are represented by a union or not. Signing a union authorization card would not result in a worker's termination.

"What we were clarifying for our team members was that by signing a union authorization card you could be giving up your right to work directly with plant leadership to address problems and concerns," Croston wrote.

As of Monday afternoon, Tyson has not been charged with unfair labor practices at its Columbus Junction plant.

The rub for Tyson's Columbus Junction plant manager Brent McElroy was that Tyson workers were learning about the union organizing effort while signing up for a USDA-funded meatpacking worker assistance program. He wrote in a memo to all workers at the plant that this was confusing workers who thought the assistance was contingent on signing a union card.

"Some team members have informed us that while registering to receive these payments, team members may be being pressured to sign a union authorization card for the UFCW, Local 431," McElroy wrote in a memo dated Jan. 6.

IPR News previously reported that Escucha Mi Voz was handing out USDA-funded $600 checks to 1,800 eligible meatpacking workers. To apply, workers answered questions and signed a document testifying to their eligibility. Afterward, they were given the option to learn more about organizing and potentially sign a union authorization card for the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 431.

UCFW President Simplice Kuelo was not immediately available for comment. Union organizers have not released how many cards have been signed. As of 3 p.m. Monday, Escucha Mi Voz had written 1,780 checks as part of their program, though not all are current Tyson employees. The National Labor Relations Board will hold a unionization vote if at least 30% of employees sign cards and petition the board.

Zachary Oren Smith is a reporter covering Eastern Iowa