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Union vote pending for Waco Pilgrim's poultry plant

Union vote pending for Waco Pilgrim's poultry plant

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The Pilgrim’s poultry plant in Waco became a polling place Wednesday, employees voting up or down on unionizing the plant.

With votes to be cast late into the evening, including during the shift ending at 9:30 p.m., organizers did not expect results until late Wednesday or early Thursday. They said they may shift organizing efforts to the Sanderson Farms and Cargill poultry plants locally should the opportunity arise.

“Some employees want to have a voice at work, a union, an opportunity to raise issues,” said Gonzalo Reyes, organizing director for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union 540 in Dallas.

He joined other organizers who held signs and dispensed pamphlets outside Pilgrim’s on Lake Shore Drive. Reyes said the union heard “mixed stories” about working conditions at the facility that employs about 400 people. He said organizers have made their presence felt several weeks, showing up especially during shift changes to make their opinions known and interact with workers leaving and entering.

Information sheets include messages in English and Spanish.

“Voting yes means you want an opportunity to negotiate better wages, better benefits, and better working conditions,” one flyer says. “Voting yes means you want a voice and representation from UFCW 540.”

The UFCW website says the union has 1.3 million members in the United States and Canada who “work in grocery and retail stores, pharmacies, health care and manufacturing facilities, and in food processing and meat packing industries. We believe hard work should be rewarded with a better life, and that no one should have to struggle alone.”

The organization works to win strong contracts that put improvements in wages and working conditions in writing, backs laws that protect workers’ interests, and acts as a watchdog, according to the site.

Carl Green, who lives in Waco but travels extensively as the union’s international organizing coordinator, said union representatives started organizing efforts at the local Pilgrim’s plant in mid-May. Green said employees have been receptive to the message, but he declined to predict how voting would turn out. He said he has nothing negative to say about Pilgrim’s.

Green said the Pilgrim’s plant employs about 400, while Cargill’s employment runs about 600 and Sanderson Farms’ between 1,100 and 1,200.

Pilgrim’s, formerly Pilgrim’s Pride, was founded in 1946 in Pittsburg, Texas, by Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim, who famously appeared in television commercials wearing pilgrim garb and often accompanied by a pet chicken.

The company in 2009 was bought by JBS, a Brazil-based multinational. Pilgrim’s headquarters were relocated from Texas to Greeley, Colorado.

Reyes said JBS’ pay scale lags behind others in the poultry industry. He said he believes $12.80 per hour is starting pay for production employees.

A salary-tracking service, Indeed.com, reports packers at Pilgrim’s make $11.51 per hour on average; refrigeration mechanics, $22.62 per hour; warehouse workers, $14.30 an hour; production associates, $37,106 annually; shift leaders, $38,094 annually; and supervisors, $48,740 annually.

“It is hard labor, very repetitive work,” Reyes said.

Sanderson Farms is the only “kill” plant in Greater Waco, where live birds are trucked to the plant from farms for slaughtering and processing, he said. Cargill and Pilgrim’s limit their local functions to processing.

If Pilgrim’s employees approve joining the union, the next step is electing a bargaining committee from among the workforce, Reyes said. Texas being a right-to-work state, the approval vote does not commit all employees to joining the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, only those who choose to become members.

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