The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Migrant Factory Workers Try to Unionize Minnesota Plant

by Madeleine Baran

In a race against time, migrant factory workers at a Midwest canning facility struggle against management scare tactics to organize a union, fight exploitative work conditions and change horrific housing circumstances.

Owatonna, Minnesota; Sept. 6, 2004 – Eight years ago, Sanjuanita Ochoa traveled over 1,000 miles from southern Texas to the small town of Owatonna in rural Minnesota to work in a vegetable canning and processing plant. She had heard the job paid decent wages; but when she arrived, she was shocked to learn that she would have to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week, for $6 an hour with no sick pay or benefits.

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Ochoa said the Owatonna Canning Company, which then owned the plant, housed her, along with five friends who also worked at the plant and her infant son in a one-room house several miles away. The house was part of a workers’ camp, run by the company. Ochoa said none of the homes in the camp had running water or phones. A central building housed communal toilets and showers. "I thought I couldn’t live there," she said in a recent interview. "But there’s nothing else. I had to stay."

Thousands of foreign-born workers like Ochoa, mostly from Mexico and Central America, travel long distances to work in America’s factories only to find themselves in dire circumstances. Although reliable estimates are not available, and less is known about the plight of factory laborers than that of farm workers, the migration of industrial workers occurs throughout the US, as employers try to reduce their full-time work forces.

Ochoa now works part-time organizing a new, independent union to represent migrant workers who travel each May to work in the plant, now owned by Lakeside Foods, Inc., a vegetable canning and processing company with fifteen factories and eight distribution centers in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Union organizers say many are fearful of losing their jobs if they complain or express support for the union.

While unions like the United Farm Workers of America have had successes organizing agricultural migrant workers, Spanish-speaking migrant factory workers remain mostly without union representation. The Trabajadores Unidos del Norte (UTN), or United Workers of the North, hopes to change that reality, demanding health insurance, better pay, and other improvements in working conditions. If they succeed, organizers say they want to slowly build a mass movement to unionize migrant factory workers across Minnesota and the entire nation.

Ochoa and other organizers say nothing has changed since Lakeside Foods bought the plant in June 2003. About 100 to 150 Spanish-speaking people, many originally from Mexico, come to work from May to October each year, earning between $6 and $8, according to union organizers and former employees. Workers’ shifts are twelve hours long and they work either between 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. or 6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.

Organizers also allege that, although the workers do earn overtime, they must work up to seven days a week or be fired. The company does not give time off for illness or to care for sick children. Ochoa told the story of one woman who, fearful of losing her job, worked up until the last day of her pregnancy, and then returned just a few days after giving birth.

The plant’s general manager, Rich Bartz, freely admits that the migrant workers put in twelve-hour days, but claims they work six -- not seven -- days a week because the company has a "day-off policy." He refused to comment on how much workers earn, except to say that the lowest wage is "slightly more than $6 an hour," and that he believes wages at the plant to be "competitive."

The plant’s year-round workers earn significantly more than the migrant workers, and have been unionized by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Bartz would not comment on full-time workers’ wages, but UTN organizers say full-timers earn at least $10 an hour. UTN organizer Victor Contreras said the local UFCW union has not yet been involved in supporting the migrant workers’ organizing effort, but adds that he has a "good relationship" with the local union, and hopes they will support the UTN’s unionization drive. The UFCW’s national headquarters did not return calls seeking additional information. The president of the local union could not be reached.

Bartz also confirmed that the workers receive no sick pay or health insurance. "They have free benefits around here now," he said. When asked to elaborate, Bartz reasoned that the workers "have a better deal" than he does, because he has to pay health insurance, while the migrant workers can take advantage of free medical clinics in the area.

On a recent afternoon, workers were busy transporting materials in and out of the plant, which spans several blocks in this small town an hour south of Minneapolis. Across the street, union organizers protested with signs that said, "Honk for Union" and "United Workers of the North." Several miles away, workers began to wake up to prepare for the night shift.

The workers’ lodging, referred to as "the camp" by management and workers alike, consists of a dozen small, gray, concrete one-story houses, enclosed by a fence surrounded by cornfields. A sign on the fence states, "Permission to enter granted by crew leader." One outdoor pay phone provides the only phone service.

Separate communal bathrooms for men and women and a laundry room take up the middle of the camp. The women’s bathroom contains six toilets, two private showers, and two communal showering areas, partitioned off by a dirty plastic curtain. On a recent visit, brown water dripped from the unpainted, concrete walls and covered the floors. The water in the toilets and in the three sinks looked slightly yellow.

Residents of the camp would not comment on working and living conditions. Union organizers say many are fearful of losing their jobs if they complain or express support for the union.

Bartz said that conditions at the company-owned camp are satisfactory. "No one has told me anything different," he said. He added that some workers live in company-provided homes closer to the plant, but declined to elaborate further.

Each worker pays $10 a week for the sparse lodgings. The company does not provide transportation to work, and on a recent evening, eight workers climbed into a compact car to make the ten-minute drive.

UTN organizers, who claim that over 30 percent of the plant’s migrant workers have signed cards agreeing to join the union, sent a letter to Lakeside several weeks ago, asking management to recognize the union. The company has not responded.

A request for a union certification election is currently pending before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Contreras said he hopes the NLRB will schedule elections soon, before the workers leave for the season.

The company’s response has been to send several letters to the workers, written in Spanish. The NewStandard obtained one letter, dated August 20, which questioned the legitimacy of the UTN. "We have never heard of [United Workers of the North]," says the letter, signed by Bartz and by Lakeside president and CEO Douglas Quick. "We tried looking up information about this group on the internet with no result. They insist that they are a labor union looking to represent what they call ‘temporary’ workers in our Owatonna plant. We are in doubt about the exact identity of UTN, who they are, what they want, and if in reality they have any semblance of representing workers. You should also take this into consideration."

The letter also states: "A card or petition can be a legal document, forcing you into rules and regulations and the possibility of fines or disciplinary actions by the union. One thing is true: there is no guarantee that the promises they make to you will be carried out. Unions frequently make unending promises, hoping that before you see the reality, you will decide to sign and give them an opportunity." The letter goes on to threaten that if a union insists on forcing companies to make unrealistic changes, the result is strikes, job losses and losses of opportunities. In the letter, Bartz and Quick specifically ask workers not to sign union cards or petitions.

Contreras said the letters have intimidated workers. "[Lakeside is] very powerful," he said. "They have a lot of money, but we’re still strong."

UTN organizers plan to ask workers to elect union officials in the next week and are still in the process of developing a plan to counter the company’s anti-union letters, but organizers are hopeful. Plans for trips to nearby towns to publicize the movement are in the works. Organizer Cynthia Olveda said the union has also received some support from local residents. "We’re not going to end this until we win," she said.

Olveda also suggested another possible solution to the conflict between Lakeside and its migrant workers. "I wish [CEO Douglas] Quick could go to the camp, live there for two days, and then see how he feels."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Madeleine Baran is a contributing journalist.

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