First contract for 177 Conagra workers
By CARL GREEN
St. Elmo, IL – Driving across south-central Illinois on Interstate 70, drivers can’t help but notice a large manufacturing plant right along the highway in this small town.
But that plant and that small town in Fayette County are the location of one of the region’s largest union organizing victories in recent years.
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 881 has completed the first contract for 177 members of its bargaining unit at the former Pinnacle plant now owned by Conagra, one of the nation’s leading food companies.
Membership could climb to around 200 if business improves. Some 85 percent of the workers voted June 23 to ratify the three-year contract, which includes worker raises in each year, said Michael Roberts, field director of Local 881’s Edwardsville office, who pushed the contract through along with organizer and rep John Reichling.
The campaign took years and fought through setbacks and strong resistance from Pinnacle. The determination of the workers ultimately made it happen.
“It was kind of a grassroots organization and just kept growing,” Roberts told the Labor Tribune. “They really wanted to have their voices heard. They fought hard for it.”
The plant makes products familiar to anyone who goes to the grocery store – all flavors of Wish-Bone salad dressing, Open Pit barbecue sauce and three popular pancake syrups – Mrs. Butterworth, Log Cabin and Country Kitchen.
STARTING WITH ONE
The Labor victory started as so many do – with one worker contacting the union and asking for help, Roberts said, in part because managers were showing favoritism to certain workers. From that came a meeting in a garage with four enthusiastic workers who began spreading the word. The next meeting had eight.
Roberts and Reichling made many trips to St. Elmo, spending time with workers at the park and at the coffee local shop.
At first, Pinnacle showed no resistance but then managers started asking workers to “wait and see” and delay organizing. Instead, the union filed for an election and turned in its petitions National Labor Relations Board. That changed everything.
The vote was scheduled in 2016. The company brought in union busters and claimed the plant would close and workers would lose their jobs. “Some of the employees believed it, and we lost by eight votes,” Roberts said.
Instead of giving up, the union filed charges of unfair practices, took affidavits and convinced the NLRB to schedule another vote in February 2017. This time, the union won by 25 votes.
But as many union organizers have learned, establishing a bargaining unit is one thing, and getting a contract done is something else. Pinnacle dragged its feet, canceling many bargaining meetings.
“They weren’t wanting to sit down and meet with us,” Roberts said.
In July 2018, New Jersey-based Pinnacle announced it was being bought out by Conagra, the Chicago-based food manufacturing giant, for $10.9 billion. That halted negotiations until December, when the sale went through. Pinnacle shareholders were left holding 16 percent of the combined company.
“Conagra agreed to meet with us and we made some headway,” Roberts noted. “It was a hard-fought battle. It was unique.”
The company already had several plants represented by UFCW and was not afraid of the union. The contract soon followed.
UFCW now has a committee with up to nine stewards in St. Elmo, and they continue to work on plant issues. “They’re still the company, and we’re still the union,” he said.
One factor was that Pinnacle also had a plant in nearby Mattoon making Lender’s Bagels that had been unionized for years. It organized in 2008 and won its first contract in 2012. A third Pinnacle plant remains – non-union – in Centralia, making Duncan Hinds cake and frosting mixes. Both plants are now part of Conagra.
DOUBLED IN ’15
St. Elmo received a major boost in 2015 when Pinnacle added its newly acquired salad dressing brands to the plant, which was already making barbecue sauce and syrup. Employment then went from 85 to about the current level.
New equipment valued at $50 million was added, with help from the city, county and state. The company cited St. Elmo’s central location, room for growth and the good performance of the workers.
Conagra was just recognized by the Points of Light volunteer organization as one of The Civic 50 – the 50 most community-minded companies in the nation. It makes grants to non-profit organizations, as recommended by workers; runs the Shine the Light on Hunger campaign that created two million food bank meals last year; sponsors “Month of Service” projects for employees; and donates to the Feeding America network of food banks, totaling 13.4 million pounds last year.
The company has about 50 locations, more than 17,000 employees and annual revenue of about $11 billion.