Home / General / This Day in Labor History: June 2, 1984

This Day in Labor History: June 2, 1984

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On June 2, 1984, about 500 workers at the Marval turkey processing plant in Harrisonburg, Virginia went on strike. This was a relatively small strike and it did not succeed, but it represented widespread discontent in a poultry industry growing ever more centralized and where working conditions had plummeted in recent years.

In the 1970s, Virginia became a major producer of American turkeys. This was the era in which Americans switched to an increasingly poultry-based died and new turkey and especially chicken. This was especially centered in Rockingham County, which called itself “Turkey Capital of the World.” These factories employed low-wage workers, often Black southerners, with few other options. Later, they would employ large numbers of Latin Americans as well. They looked for workers with few options and given that most of these plants were either in rural areas or small towns, they were able to recruit enough labor to operate successfully.

United Food and Commercial Workers represented the workers at Marval. This was a factory that processed up to 60,000 turkeys a day. Some came from local farms, but many came from places as far away as Ohio and Pennsylvania. UFCW represented quite a few workers in poultry plants around the South, despite the difficulty of organizing in that part of the country. It was a minority of the industry there, for sure, but the union had a presence. That said, striking with low-wage workers in an anti-union part of the country with limited financial resources meant that strikes were hard going. But UFCW tried. In 1980, it got the AFL-CIO to issue a national boycott on Perdue as the union tried to organize 3,500 workers of the company in several plants. The boycott intended to get the entire union movement acting in solidarity with the workers to put economic pressure on the company. It was a good effort, but with limited success.

The Marval plant in Virginia was in fact unionized. But the company had no interest in honestly bargaining with the workers as a contract came to expiration. The workers and UFCW wanted pay increases. The company wanted the union to agree to contract provisions that would make it easier to for workers to quit the union! Let’s just say that the union wasn’t too amenable to that one! The company had recently invested heavily in new technologies to speed up turkey production. It had cut the workforce by 20 percent while speeding up production. That led to higher levels of workplace injuries. This really was a momentous occasion. It was the first strike in the history of the Virginia turkey industry, which even back then was pulling in about $250 million a year.

Finally on June 2, about half the workers went on strike. It got a good bit of newspaper coverage at the time. In the Washington Post, UFCW president Thomas McNutt noted, “The working conditions were the key issue . . . . The conditions in this place are incredible.” He went on to note that the speed-up was so fast that “People have to have passes now to go to the bathroom. If they leave the line before getting permission they get written up. People have actually soiled themselves on the line because they are afraid of getting written up.”

The company denied this was the issue. It was pretty forthright about trying to bust the union, which fit perfectly within the context of the 1980s when companies routinely forced their workers on strike in attempts to bust the union. The company noted that Virginia was a right-to-work state and thus any rules that made workers stay in the union were illegal. Since union membership cannot be legally compelled, what I am guessing was happening here is that a previous contract had negotiated a period of time each year where people could leave the union and the company wanted to make that a permanent condition where workers could leave at any time. This is conjecture, because details on this strike are not that extensive, but that was a typical type of contract language at that time.

Moreover, the company was like, oh maybe people have shit on themselves because they are working so hard! Said its spokesperson: “We don’t prohibit going to the restroom. We allow it, but we try to keep up with where people are, and try to have reasonable guidelines about how many people are away at one time. We don’t intend to mistreat and we do not . . . I am not saying there haven’t been accidents on the line. That may have occurred.” No problem I guess!

The strike really wasn’t successful. Even at the beginning, only about half the workers walked out. So it’s hard to win with a limited level of support, or more accurately, very real fear about losing their jobs convincing plenty of workers to not strike. The AFL-CIO agreed to put Marval on its boycott list, but again, this was of limited effectiveness in a nation without a strong unionized workforce across the nation. Some workers started trickling back in to their jobs. The company began hiring replacement workers and were up front that those workers would permanently replace the strikers, which the Supreme Court had long before unfortunately ruled legal in NLRB v. Mackay. Employers had let that sleeping dog lie for four decades before the early 80s, when they decided to weaponize permanent replacements as part of their new war on workers.

After six weeks, the strike ended. Marval remained on the boycott list and UFCW committed $100,000 a month to advertise the continuation of the boycott and to support the workers. I don’t know how long that actually lasted, but not too long. Shortly after this, UFCW would be faced with an internal rebellion in the Austin, Minnesota meatpacking plant when the P-9 local refused to acquiesce to corporate demands that UFCW leadership also agreed with in order to keep the plant open. This tore the union apart and led to the depressing but critically important Barbara Kopple film American Dream.

But UFCW continued organizing southern packers when it could. In 1986, it organized the Delta Pride catfish plant in Mississippi, where people shot at strikers and a cop beat the living hell of a striker like it was 1935. Other unions tried to organize from time to time as well and sometimes workers would walk off the job without a union, but just out of desperation and frustration. But ultimately, conditions in the southern packing plants would not improve and a few years later, tragedy struck when an anti-union owner created a chicken factory so dangerous that it burned and killed 25 workers at Hamlet, North Carolina.

I borrowed from Kathleen Schwartzmann, The Chicken Trail: Following Workers, Migrants, and Corporations across the Americas to help write this post.

This is the 521st post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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