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Hundreds of Foster Farms Workers on Strike
100's of Foster Farms workers went on strike yesterday, in protest against unfair wages and working conditions, and also for respect and dignity on the job.
Plant workers strike
JOAN BARNETT LEE/THE BEE
By JOHN HOLLAND
BEE STAFF WRITER
Last Updated: October 26, 2005, 06:32:13 AM PDT
LIVINGSTON — Hundreds of Foster Farms employees, upset about wages and working conditions, went on strike Tuesday at the company's largest chicken plant.
The strike, threatened since May, did not affect the plant's output, said Tim Walsh, vice president of human resources for the poultry giant. He said more than half of the site's 2,400 employees refused to walk out, and replacement workers filled out the production lines.
Union leaders claimed that about 80 percent of the day shift stayed out and that much of the night shift would follow suit.
Whatever the numbers, it was a boisterous but orderly scene as workers took to the picket lines outside the plant after the 6 a.m. start of the strike in this city of about 12,300.
The strike doesn't involve workers at other Foster Farms facilities, including processing plants in Turlock and Fresno, or its dairy operation, which sells milk, yogurt and ice cream products.
The largest private employer in Merced County, the company's poultry operation has annual sales of about $1.5 billion and is the seventh-largest poultry producer in the country. The Livingston plant alone processes about 500,000 chickens a day.
"We need respect," said 19-year employee Juana Santiago of Atwater, who works in packaging. "We need better treatment from the foremen. There are people working 30 years getting $9.33 an hour. That's ridiculous."
Walsh said the average wage is about $10.50 an hour, and health and other benefits bring total compensation close to $17 an hour.
The workers are seeking 50-cent-per-hour wage increases in each of the next three years. Foster Farms has proposed no raise the first year, 15 cents the second and 20 cents the third.
The employees rebuffed the company's offer in May and talks have been at a standstill since. They were represented by the League of Independent Workers of the San Joaquin Valley, which has since affiliated with the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
Walsh said the company will not agree to a key demand — that all the workers be required to join the union.
"I think most employees feel they should have a choice," he said.
Ralph Meraz, who heads the union, said the walkout could end as soon as the company agrees to resume negotiations. Some workers said they were told it would be a three-day strike, but union leaders said no limit had been set.
Meraz said there is no strike fund to help employees who now lack income. He said the union does plan to seek reimbursement for the lost hours if the National Labor Relations Board rules in its favor on a complaint about labor practices at Foster Farms.
The strike could compound the chronic unemployment in Merced County. Its jobless rate was reported at 7.6 percent in September, compared with a rate of 4.8 percent for the state and nation as a whole.
Outside the plant gates Tuesday, striking workers blew whistles and horns, chanted prolabor slogans, and shouted at truckers and other people going in and out. The pickets walked back and forth along two city blocks in front of the plant's main entrance, stopping at the request of law enforcement officers when vehicles approached.
"The union's been very good," Livingston Police Chief Bill Eldridge said. "We've been getting along with them very well."
About 20 law enforcement officers are patrolling the area around the plant under a plan drawn up several months ago. They include city police, the California Highway Patrol and the sheriff's departments in Merced and Stanislaus counties. Foster Farms has security guards on its property.
The strike came eight years after a two-week walkout that ended with a tiny pay hike.
Rajinder Singh of Livingston, a 26-year employee, said costs are rising for housing, fuel and other needs, and workers had no choice but to strike again.
"We want the company to be fair with us, that's all, and realize that we are human, not slaves," said Singh, who said he makes $9.28 an hour on the processing line.
Workers also complained about high health insurance costs, favoritism by supervisors, short notice of overtime shifts, pressure to increase production, and threats against union supporters.
"They treat us like product instead of employees, instead of people," said warehouse worker David Reos of Livingston, who has spent three years at Foster Farms.
Livingston Mayor Brandon Friesen said a long strike could mean trouble for employees trying to meet mortgage payments and cover other costs.
"As days progress and time goes on, that's when the true effect of the economic impact happens," said Friesen, who runs a hardware store on Main Street.
He said the city eventually could use up the $50,000 it has budgeted for police overtime related to the strike.
"The city's perspective is we want to have a safe environment for people to do what they want to do," he said.
He recalled a less-peaceful strike at the plant in the 1970s, when water trucks were brought in to hose down pickets.
The Merced Sun-Star contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at 578-2385 or jholland [at] modbee.com.