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Archive for Thursday, July 24, 2003

Strike pits town against Tyson

July 24, 2003

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— Yard signs urge people to boycott Tyson Foods. The town's two grocery stories no longer sell Tyson chicken and meat, and signs taped in restaurant windows advertise Tyson-free meals.

A strike by 470 workers at Tyson's Jefferson plant has turned into a fight between this town of 7,300 and the world's largest meat company. The walkout is also the first under Tyson by one of the former IBP meatpacking plants bought in a 2001 deal that moved the poultry company into beef and pork.

The United Food and Commercial Workers union contends the company is using the Jefferson plant to send a message to other former IBP meat plants to expect lower wages and benefits in the future. But Tyson spokesman Ed Nicholson says the company wants to bring the Jefferson workers' benefits in line with what its other 110,000 workers receive and its wages in line with what comparable workers earn in the region.

People in this town 30 miles east of Madison are supporting the striking workers, who have been off the job since Feb. 28.

"I don't know if this small town can make a difference, but we're doing as much as we can," said Chad Stelse, who manages Frank's County Market.

That's why Ken's Towne Inn no longer uses Tyson pepperoni on its pizza, even though "Hormel's is only half as good," manager Butch Janke said. It's also why other businesses are offering discounts, collecting food and finding other ways to help the workers who produce pepperoni, hams, bologna and hot dogs at the plant.

Tyson, which posted $23.4 billion in sales in 2002, got the Jefferson plant and about 60 others when it bought IBP two years ago. One of those plants, a pork facility in Waterloo, Iowa, reached a contract deal with the company last year that raised wages and improved some benefits but also increased insurance premiums.

The company's offer would freeze wages for four years and cut new hires' hourly wages from about $11 to $9, both sides say. Tyson would give workers bonuses when they ratify the contract and each year but wants workers to pay more for health care, Nicholson said.

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