Holten Meat workers on strike for better hours, opportunity and dignity

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Holten MEAT workers, striking for a better contract that respects their seniority and gives them time off to spend with their families, listen to UFCW Local 655 President David Cook and the Rev. Martin Rafanan, a leader with Jobs with Justice, at a rally outside the plant on March 27. – Labor Tribune photo

UFCW Local 655 calls for boycott of Holten products

By CARL GREEN
Illinois Correspondent

Sauget, IL – The products of Holten Meats are usually the kind of thing you want to buy – good quality, fair prices, made in America by union workers and sold at union grocery stores.

But not right now.

The 57-year-old company, owned since 2013 by the Branding Iron conglomerate, is expecting its workers to work Saturdays and take a comp day during the week instead.

It is also hiring people off the street instead of giving its experienced and dedicated workers chances for promotion or to move from night shifts to day shifts. Wages aren’t that great, either, but workers say they understand it’s a low-wage business.

After putting up with it for years, the workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, are now on strike, demanding an overdue contract that would give them weekends off to be with their families and opportunities for promotion or day shifts based on seniority. Three quarters of those voting March 18 opted for a strike.

Local 655 President David Cook told workers at a rally outside the plant on March 27 that the UFCW is ready to turn up the heat on Holten by informing the public about its abuse of workers and asking individuals, grocers and food services to boycott Holten products.

“We will tell the companies that are buying them to stop buying from this company until they do right by the workers out here today,” Cook said. “If that doesn’t get their attention, we have the commitment of our national union. They will take that message across the country.”

Local 655 covers much of the eastern half of Missouri and is the largest private sector labor union in the state, representing more than 10,000 workers, mostly in grocery stores and food processing facilities.

‘TAKING A STAND FOR OUR FAMILIES’

Trinetta Kitchen, a seven-year production employee, spoke for the Holten workers at the rally.

“I am a hard worker, I am a good worker, and I actually like my job,” she told an enthusiastic crowd of Holten workers and supporters from other unions. “But today I’m not working, because my co-workers and I are taking a stand for our families.

“Going on strike was one of the toughest decisions I have ever made. I am the mother of two children, and I work this job to support them and to care for them. But working to support them is not the same thing as never seeing them!”

STRIKE FOR RESPECT

About 290 workers at Holten are members of Local 655 – 248 in the main production unit and about 40 in a separate unit of office and maintenance workers.

The production workers’ contract expired in October and they have had unsuccessful talks since then. The office and maintenance workers’ contract ended just last week, and they are now on strike to support the production workers’ demand for seniority language.

Cook told the rally that the strike is not about money, but about workers being treated with respect.

“The partners here at Holton have said, ‘Enough is enough!’” Cook said, speaking to workers from the back of a pickup truck alongside Sauget Industrial Boulevard outside the Holten plant.

“My partners have said, ‘Treat us like humans.’ You’ve said it’s time for respect, you’ve said ‘It’s time to address our concerns.’ You’re not greedy workers; you understand that you can make what you can make and that’s it.

“But what’s not acceptable is to be treated with the disrespect that you’re treated with on a daily basis – to not allow you to have time off with your families, when all we hear today is ‘What happened to family values?’

“What happened to family values is that you have companies that put the bottom line in front of your families,” Cook added. “That’s not acceptable today, that’s not acceptable tomorrow, that’s never acceptable!”

NO CHOICE BUT TO FIGHT

Trinetta Kitchen said workers have no choice but to stand up and fight.

“When Holten Meat wants to eliminate our ability to spend weekends with our family, we have to say ‘No!’” she said. “When Holten Meat wants to keep our experienced and skilled workers from moving up and advancing at the company, we have to say ‘No!’

“When Holten Meat says respect doesn’t matter, that, ‘We will treat you however we like,’ we have to say ‘No!’ We have to say no because it’s not just about the job for us. It’s about our families and a better life that we have earned and deserve.

“I’m a hard worker for a successful company. I’m experienced and skilled. I deserve to be treated with respect and to have time to spend with my children.”

ONCE A FAMILY BUSINESS

Holten Meats was founded in 1960 by Elwyn “Red” Holten. It’s now located in a modern, 85,000 square-foot plant just south of East St. Louis in St. Clair County. In 2013, it went corporate as part of the Branding Iron group, which also includes Rochester Meat, from New York, and Huisken Meat, from Minnesota.

Holten’s products include beef, veal and pork, frozen and sold either at grocery stores or to the institutional food service market. Its biggest brand is “Thick ‘n’ Juicy” frozen hamburger patties, which are sold at local groceries. “Health Answers” is another brand.

Cook said he’s been dealing with Holten for 30 years, and that it used to be a better company.

“I remember when the Holten family ran this company exclusively,” he said. “They cared about the families that worked for them. They cared not only about the compensation they gave you, but the way they treated you.”

LABOR SUPPORT

Members of several unions attended the rally, including IBEW Local 309, Machinists and others. Bill Thurston, president of the Southwestern Illinois Labor Council, and B. Dean Webb, president of the Greater Madison County Federation of Labor, both turned out to support the workers.

“That’s what unions are all about – supporting one another,” Thurston said.

Rev. Martin Rafanan, representing clergy and Jobs with Justice, told the rally that he has been spreading the word among other Labor leaders.

“I’ve called them, and I’ve told them they need to be thinking about you and what you’re doing,” he said. “We’re thankful for the workers here and everything they’re doing, because you are working not only for yourselves, but for this community and your families.

“There’s only one thing we’re asking for, and that is respect!”

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