SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — Workers at a South Dakota meatpacking plant that became a coronavirus hotspot last year are considering a strike after contract negotiations between Smithfield Foods and the union have stalled, the union said Wednesday.
The Sioux Falls chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union threatened to move for a walkout and work stoppage if the company does not resume negotiations on a new four-year contract. The dispute has centered on the wages for meatpacking employees, health care costs and break times. The union said workers have risked their health and lives throughout the pandemic, arguing the company should do more for its employees.
The plant became an early indicator of just how vulnerable meatpacking plants were to the pandemic when a surge of infections surfaced among workers in April last year. Four plant workers died from COVID-19 and nearly 1,300 were infected. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited Smithfield Foods for failing to protect employees from exposure to the coronavirus at the plant.
“It is stunning that Smithfield still refuses to work together with UFCW Local 304A to reach an agreement that recognizes the incredible service of these dedicated South Dakotan workers,” the local union president B.J. Motley said in a statement.
Union members will vote this week on the company’s current contract offer. According to the union, the proposed contract starts employees off at $18 an hour and cuts a 15-minute break period. The union is pressing to start employees at $19 an hour, as well as avoid increases to employees’ health insurance premiums and allow more time for medical leave.
Smithfield Chief Administrative Officer Keira Lombardo said in a statement that the union’s comments were inaccurate. The company said that if union members rejected an offer scheduled for a vote Thursday, there were discussions about scheduling more meetings next week.
“It is unfortunate that the union has issued a statement that is, unquestionably, inaccurate,” Lombardo said. “Such tactics during an active and ongoing contract negotiation are a disservice to our many hard-working employees.”
If the contract is not approved, union members could then vote to consider striking, but that would not become an option until June 7, when a contract extension deadline expires.
Smithfield CEO Kenneth Sullivan has aggressively defended how the company handled the virus outbreak. Local union leaders have said that after the meatpacking plant shut down for several weeks last year amid the outbreak, the company implemented most of the measures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But it has maintained that workers are still at risk to the virus as they work shoulder-to-shoulder on butchering lines.
“While vaccinations are increasing in South Dakota, the COVID risks these frontline workers face are still here and Smithfield must recognize this reality,” Motley said.