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Poultry Workers Charge Abuse at Cargill

Local activists and union organizers have filed a charge against Cargill in Dayton for retaliating against employees because of their union activities. They say that Cargill is not living up to its own code of conduct. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Two weeks ago a group of advocates and former employees marched to Cargill in Dayton to deliver a copy of an unfair labor practices charge against the company, calling for it to adhere to its own code of conduct that respects employees’ rights to organize.

In provided audio, pastor Stephanie Sorge Wing of Trinity Presbyterian Church spoke on behalf of the Harrisonburg group Faith in Action to a Cargill representative who documented the group’s concerns.

STEPHANIE SORGE WING: We stand in solidarity with the workers. We want our neighbors and our sisters especially to be treated fairly and with dignity.

The charge they delivered was filed with the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, earlier this year by the Maryland-based United Food and Commercial Workers Union, Local 400, said union organizer and interpreter Hannah Kane.

The charge states that within the prior six months Cargill had retaliated against four union supporters by terminating employment, denying overtime opportunities, assigning “less favorable jobs,” and denying or reducing work opportunities and hours – “solely because of their union activities.”

One of them – now a former employee – is 54-year-old Ernestina Castillo. At her kitchen table, the smell of freshly fried plantains and the chirps of her pet birds warming the room, she said through an interpreter that she was fired at the end of October after she was injured on a new line that she had been transferred to – and after she had begun wearing a union shirt and had signed a union card. She had worked for the company for more than 13 years.

ERNESTINA CASTILLO (through UFCWU interpreter Hannah Kane): Everyone else who has gotten injured on that line was given a transfer to a different line, or they were at least given additional training about how to work that line, and for me they wouldn’t give me either transfer or training. When I couldn’t put up with the pain anymore I went to the infirmary to ask for the nurse to give me pain medication. That was when my supervisor came to the infirmary and told me that there was no more work for me. I want to work but they kicked me out.

CLYMER KURTZ: The injury was their excuse to fire you because you wore the union shirt?

CASTILLO: Yes. That’s it.

Cargill’s director of communications is Mike Martin, based in Kansas. He wrote in an email that no one was available for interview for this report. He said that the company prefers “to work directly with our team members to address issues and resolve concerns,” and referred to the company’s Statement on Human Rights, which states, “We respect freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain, enabling employees to join a union and voluntarily negotiate.”

He also wrote that in accordance with its rights and obligations, “At various times, Cargill brings in both internal and external resources that have experience with unions to share with our employees facts about union organizing and unions.”

He declined to elaborate on what is important for employees to consider when deciding about unions and organizing, and he declined to comment on Cargill’s relationship with one of the company’s “external resources” – Kulture Consulting, LLC, a South Carolina-based “employee and labor relations consultancy.”

Kulture did not respond to an emailed request for comment, but its website describes its labor relations services in part as “exposing the truth about union organizer tactics.”

According to a 2016 report filed by Cargill with the NLRB, Cargill hired Kulture to “assist Cargill in communicating facts and legally accurate information to employees when we knew that a Union was attempting to have our employees sign authorization cards.”

This is troubling to Michael Snell-Feikema, a coordinator for the Community Solidarity with Poultry Workers group in Harrisonburg.

MICHAEL SNELL-FEIKEMA: If you want to understand how these labor consultancies work, they toe the fine line. They find a way for the company to do union busting without getting nailed for it, and Cargill knows this.

He points to a 2015 NLRB administrative law judge’s decision from California that names Kulture and the same agent who has come to Dayton. It details interrogation and other threats in response to workers’ attempts to organize.

He said that the reports showing Kulture’s role at Cargill reflect only the tip of the iceberg, because while firms like Kulture do have to disclose activities that bring them into direct contact with employees, they do not have to report their training of supervisors. And it’s often the supervisors, he said, who engage in harassment activity and “psychological warfare,” such as trying to trick employees into doing things they could be fired for. He’s heard reports of such violations of employee rights, he said, but they’re difficult to prove.

SNELL-FEIKEMA: I hope Cargill will accept the rights of the workers to organize, that that’s a way to move from a model of the disposable workforce, which is the one that they have now, to a model of a sustainable workforce, which is the only model that has a future, the only model that’s good for the company, the workers, and the community.

He also wants Ernestina Castillo to be reinstated. She said she was happy, back on her earlier line, and needs to work.

CASTILLO: I’ve been spending all my savings, everything  that I’ve managed to save over the years. And this month my sister paid my rent.

Christopher Clymer Kurtz was a freelance journalist for WMRA from 2015 - 2019.