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UFCW Local 1161 President Mike Potter (third from left) joins unionized workers from JBS during meetings Tuesday to vote on a strike authorization. Workers are seeking affordable health care and better wages. Brian Korthals/Daily Globe

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WORTHINGTON — Unionized employees at JBS voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to authorize a strike after 10 months of contract negotiations have failed to reach agreement in key areas involving health care and wages for workers at the Worthington plant.

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United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1161 hosted meetings for more than seven hours Tuesday with production and maintenance workers who represent roughly 90 percent of the local pork processing facility’s workforce. The result of those group meetings led to a unanimous vote to strike if necessary.

“This is a strike authorization,” explained UFCW Local 1161 President Mike Potter Tuesday night from the union’s Oxford Street office. “There are several steps after this vote that was taken today.”

The vote gives Potter and fellow union leaders the support they need to move forward with the labor dispute. He said he could not say if or when an actual strike would occur, but that employees “are ready.”

Union representatives have been working with a JBS representative who handles contract negotiations at processing facilities across the country. Potter said talks broke down last October.

“Since then we’ve been trying to push this company to let them know the workers deserve more,” he said. “They deserve a fair contract with fair wages and decent benefits, and that’s all we’re asking.”

The last time unionized employees at Worthington’s JBS facility received a pay increase was in June 2012. According to Potter, no pay increase is being offered by JBS in a new contract, and a change in health care would shift the burden onto employees. Workers are operating under a contract that expired on June 30, 2013.

“Today, JBS is a successful, profitable, multinational corporation that’s earning profits hand over fist,” Potter said. “Working people in the plants made this success possible, yet the company is demanding that workers accept deep cuts to their health care coverage.

“Their proposed health care plan is so bad and so potentially expensive, it could mean bankruptcy for workers who become seriously ill or decide to have a baby,” he added. “There is simply no economic need to threaten the livelihoods of these workers — the only reason for this is greed.”

Mark Lauritsen, UFCW International Vice President for Food Processing and Meat Packing, said the JBS proposal for health care is bad not only for unionized employees of the local plant, but for the community as a whole.

“This is bad for everyone that operates a shop up and down this street because this is going to be real money — millions of dollars — taken right out of the Worthington economy that they would spend in the shops,” Lauritsen said. “Instead, JBS is going to take it and shift it to Greeley, Colo., and Sao Paulo, Brazil.”

Lauritsen said the current JBS proposal amounts to a more than $4 million cost shift, with the burden placed on employees.

Lisa Mejia, a member of the UFCW Local 1161 bargaining committee and a worker on the JBS cut floor, has worked for JBS for 23 years.

“This has always been a good job and workers have always been able to sit down and negotiate decent wages and benefits that mean we can have a good life,” Mejia said. “But now the company is asking us to make too big a sacrifice — one that puts our families at risk. It’s just not right, and it will negatively affect hundreds of families in Worthington and across the area.”

Potter said workers go to work every day and work hard for the company. The medical insurance program they’re offering is “not fair and it’s not right,” he added.

“They want the worker to pay for a medical insurance package that they should provide,” he said. “We disagree with them on that.”

Lauritsen is working with unions not just in Worthington, but at several other JBS plants around the country, including Greeley, Souderton, Pa., and Grand Island, Neb. Workers in Louisville, Ky., and Omaha, Neb., are expected to begin negotiations in the next two months.

“This was an extraordinarily large turnout of workers,” Lauritsen said of Tuesday’s meetings. “It was an overwhelming vote in support of the economic action that there needs to be.”

Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs at the JBS headquarters in Greeley, provided a statement to the Daily Globe in response to the strike movement.

“JBS is currently in negotiations with UFCW Local 1161 regarding a new labor agreement at the pork production facility in Worthington,” Bruett wrote. “Both parties continue good-faith negotiations, and we are confident a resolution can be achieved in a timely manner.

“Out of respect for the process and the people involved, JBS will limit further discussion to the bargaining table,” he added.

If the more than 1,800 unionized employees of Worthington’s JBS facility engage in a labor dispute, strike pay would be available to them.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

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Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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