Workers win fight for better life, return to work
By CARL GREEN
Sauget, IL – Nobody wants to go on strike, but sometimes it’s got to happen, and sometimes it has a great outcome.
That’s what happened at Holten Meat on April 11, where workers ended a three-week strike after winning new agreements with the company that addressed their concerns about seniority, opportunity and family time.
About 290 production workers, members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 655, went on strike March 18 after getting nowhere with talks to replace a contract that expired last October.
They don’t make great money, but they were more concerned about certain indignities such as night-shift workers being passed over when day shifts became available, being scheduled to work every Saturday even though many are young parents with kids in school, and an apparent lack of opportunity to be promoted within the company.
It took some time, but finally a marathon, 10½-hour bargaining session on Monday, April 10 broke the logjam, with the company and union coming up with some creative solutions that eased the workers’ concerns that were acceptable to the union members as well as the company.
In a meeting last week at the Knights of Columbus hall in Cahokia, members voted 123-2 to accept the new, three-year contract.
In an appropriate celebration on Wednesday, April 12, Local 655 President David Cook joined Holten Director of Operations Dave Griewe cooking pork steaks, brats and burgers for the workers as they returned.
Under the new contract:
- Night-shift workers will be able to shift to days when openings come up;
- Seniority will be considered in promotions; and
- a plan is in place to let the company increase its hours of production without forcing unwanted Saturday shifts.
“We were able to address the concerns of our members about seniority and being able to move to different shifts, and we were able to address the Saturday off issue, which was a major concern,” Cook said. “At the same time, we addressed the company’s concern about being able to operate efficiently, which was just as much of a concern.
“Probably the best thing that came out of this is that the owner is going to rebuild the relationship with the workers and the union. We formed a new joint labor-management partnership. The CEO and myself will meet monthly with other individuals to start talking about long-term scheduling and about how we correct the morale issue.”
The first job of that partnership will be to come up with a system to keep the plant running at full production in 2018 without forcing workers into unwanted Saturday shifts. For the rest of 2017, overtime will be paid for Saturday shifts.
Cook said the union’s international staff will help with the new shift system, which could include some members working four 10-hour days a week. At two shifts a day, that would mean the plant could run 20 hours a day instead of 16, Cook noted.
“It’s how you create flexibility in your schedule that gives the company the number of production hours they need in a week but allows our members to have some quality Saturdays and Sundays off with their families,” Cook said. “I’m comfortable that between now and the end of this year, we’ll have that created for 2018.”
Holten Meats was founded by Red Holten in 1960 and now is part of the Branding Iron group along with Rochester Meat and Huisken Meat. Its 85,000 square-foot plant is in Sauget, just off Illinois Route 3 in St. Clair County. Products include beef, veal and pork. “Thick ‘n Juicy” frozen hamburger patties are a major brand.
Holten CEO Scott Hudspeth welcomed the workers back.
“For close to 60 years, Holten Meat has been committed to providing our customers with high-quality meat products,” he said. “We welcome back all of our team members who help us deliver on that simple promise, each and every day.”
Trinetta Kitchen, a seven-year production worker who spoke at the union’s rally on March 27, expressed her appreciation for the union’s effort and her co-workers’ strength of will.
“Nobody ever wants to go on strike, including me,” she said. “But sometimes we have to stand together to ensure we get what we have earned and deserve to support our families. I work hard, and with this new contract, I’m proud to work hard again at Holten Meat.”
At the barbecue last week, production worker Jarvis McNeil said he was happy to get back to work. “I’m glad it ended as soon as it did,” he said. “It’s a good place to work.”
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
Cook said there are lessons to be learned from the strike and its outcome.
“What Monday showed me was that had we – meaning the company and the union – had more open dialogue, we’d have been there before we ever had a strike.
“But fault both sides, and credit the workers for saying, ‘Wait a second, this isn’t addressing my concerns, you guys need to put your heads together and figure it out.’
“Sometimes, unfortunately, strikes are unavoidable, but in reality, they are always avoidable if you communicate,” Cook stressed.
Cook said he is now looking forward to working more closely with the company.
“The best part of the contract, in my opinion, is the CEO saying he wants to sit down and meet with me monthly and discuss where we are and what we can do better,” he said. “That’s how you fix things – by talking. If you’re not communicating, you can’t fix anything. If you are communicating, there’s nothing you can’t fix.”