Members want to, but say they cannot, participate in the affairs of their Local
by Joanna Munoz & Kurt Richwerger
The past few months have proven most tumultuous for members of United Foods & Commercial Workers Local 1149 in Marshalltown, Iowa. Dissatisfaction with the top officers has boiled over for many members, and two protests were recently held outside the union hall, attracting the local press. A protest of roughly 250 members on November 2, 2015 and another 150 on December 8th, 2015 were covered in the Times-Republican newspaper, which covers Marshalltown and central Iowa. The dissident group has held several organizational meetings at local restaurants already. They have also begun to work with a local advocacy group, the league of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa (LULAC).
The protesters say the local officials prevent their preferred candidates from running for the top offices or for union steward. As reported in the Times-Republican, at the November 2 protest, Bob May, a 13-year 1149 member said union officials “ignore us and do what they want… and they are a little too close to union officials.” May continues, “Overall, many of us are just tired with their administration. There are a lot of dissatisfied people, they want new leadership and someone who will work for them.” The protests come after nearly four years of struggle by members against their officers’ sometimes unlawful practice and signifies members’ growing dissatisfaction with their executive board and the union overall.
Local 1149’s leaders were first accused of violating members’ rights in 2012. At that time hundreds of members signed petitions expressing dissatisfaction with the top officers: most importantly lack of representation and poor working conditions. Rather than address the members concerns, the union officers instead posted a sign in three languages, English, Spanish and Burmese, stating “Do not sign any papers that you do not understand. Bring them to the union office and we will translate or explain it to you.” In response, a member filed a charge with the NLRB, the leadership’s actions were investigated and eventually a settlement was reached. The union and the employer JBS each had to post a notice stating that, in so many words, they will not interfere with an employee’s right to engage in protected activities or restrain or coerce an employee in exercise of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
But members are still having issues with their officers. Members complain that they cannot get copies of the current contract or bylaws, despite repeated requests. Members also allege that the union withholds bylaws from new board members, that old board members are remaining in board positions beyond the mandated time limit, that the union has annual audits but there is no transparency or feedback to the members.
Maria Santos, a local member for 20 years, expressed her dissatisfaction with the union leadership. “They never help us. I don’t know why we even pay dues, we are paying for nothing.” Santos went on to explain her personal encounters with union officials, stating that they offered no assistance when she once hurt her arm while on the job. Santos has tried contacting the national UFCW office but to no avail; her calls have never been returned. In a Catch-22-like scenario, as reported in the Times-Republican, Santos was unable to get a new pair of work gloves from the employer. The employer, JBS, told her she had to trade in her pair of old gloves in order to get new ones. She never had old ones, so she was unable to get gloves at all. The local president Roger Kail told Santos that he could not help, according to the Times-Republican.
A very important issue for the dissidents is the murky process for getting a steward. They allege that the officers hand pick stewards without consensus from the entire board. The UFCW Constitution does not address the issue of stewards, and since members cannot get the bylaws, the selection of stewards is a mystery to them. The protesters outside the union hall demanded that they be allowed to elect one of their own as steward.