BrucePac faces NLRB charges in mass firing of pro-union workers

VIGIL FOR JUSTICE: Laura de Cordoba, Manuel Coria, Jose Carmen Maciel, Luis Coria, and Domitila Lopez are among 18 pro-union workers fired by Willamette Valley meat processor BrucePac.

By DON McINTOSH Associate Editor

Cooked meat producer BrucePac fired at least 17 union supporters just weeks into a union campaign at the company’s two Salem-area plants — according to charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) by Laborers Local 296.

The NLRB issued a complaint Oct. 28 in two of the instances. A federal administrative law judge is scheduled to hear the case Jan. 12.

Local 296 Business Agent Jack Roy and Dispatcher Dagoberto Aranda say BrucePac covered its tracks by laying off two dozen other employees who hadn’t made contact with the union, for a total of about 45 layoffs. It can be hard to prove that a worker was terminated because of union involvement, especially if there’s no public evidence they were union supporters. But Roy and Aranda say there’s strong circumstantial evidence. Union supporters were targeted with uncanny accuracy.

Nearly every one of the union supporters fired in the June 29 mass layoff was present at a June 6 initial meeting to discuss unionizing BrucePac. Roy and Aranda now believe one worker at that meeting was a spy for the employer. The individual didn’t come back to later union meetings, and continues to work at BrucePac.

Roy and Aranda also say the true number of fired union supporters was 20. Not all were willing to come forward. The overwhelming majority of BrucePac’s roughly 350-plus U.S. workers are native Spanish speakers.

Privately-held BrucePac has plants in Silverton and Woodburn, and a jerky-processing plant in Brazil. The company is owned by Larry Bruce, son of its founder. At the Oregon plants, workers cook and package meat and poultry according to the recipes and under the labels of corporate customers.

Jose Carmen Maciel, one of the fired employees, says he was told the layoff was for economic reasons. But he doesn’t believe it. Employees who had been at BrucePac six months or a year stayed on, while Maciel — an 11-year employee in the sanitation department— was let go. Plus, a day after BrucePac laid off 40-plus employees in all job categories, the company was advertising for replacements. Other employees were asked to work overtime.

The company’s response to the union drive appears to have been swift and aggressive.

The campaign began in late May when a BrucePac employee who is related to a Local 296 member called Aranda and asked for help. Local 296 has about 1,000 members, including construction workers, shipyard workers, and school district and housing authority employees. Roy saw no reason the union couldn’t represent BrucePac workers too.

A meeting of union supporters was called at one worker’s home.

“They want job security and respect on the job, to quit being treated like dogs,” Roy said.

Workers interviewed for this article described abuse and mistreatment by supervisors, as well as rampant favoritism. Supervisors’ friends and family members — and younger, more attractive female employees — get higher wages and easier work assignments, workers said. And that’s not all: Some workers reportedly witnessed inappropriate touching of female employees by supervisors.

Four BrucePac employees have filed complaints of employment law violations, including sexual harassment. The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries Civil Rights Division is investigating.

“It would be against federal and state law to discriminate or treat an employee adversely because of their gender,” said BOLI spokesperson Bob Estabrook.

After the first meeting, union talk spread among employees at BrucePac. But management knew right away. The day before the second union meeting, a BrucePac supervisor was threatening an “explosion” if it kept up.

Before the month was out, the explosion came: 20 workers who had voiced support for the union, and 25 others who had stood up to supervisors in some way or were otherwise out of favor, were terminated. BrucePac did not return calls from the Labor Press about the number and reasons for the layoffs.

In mid-July, Local 296 filed 18 separate NLRB charges protesting the firings. BrucePac retained Jackson Lewis, possibly the nation’s best-known anti-union law firm.

To inform workers of their rights, and of the benefits of union membership, Local 296 staff and member volunteers began showing up with fliers outside the Silverton and Woodburn plants. Managers responded by standing outside to observe who would talk to the union contingent on the way out.

At the Woodburn plant, management called police upon the unionists’ arrival. And in at least one case, Aranda said, with unionists waiting at the plant entrance, managers kept workers working three hours past their normal 3:30 p.m. quitting time.

In the workplace, anti-union meetings began, and continue. Signing a union card will put their jobs at risk, workers are told. They’ll have to pay $75 union dues out of every paycheck. The union doesn’t want them to get overtime. The union wants to destroy the company.

Aranda said the union tries to counter the misinformation, but doesn’t have anywhere near the access to employees that management has.

The union called a meeting for a Saturday. Management scheduled employees to work that day, and subsequent Saturdays.

On Nov. 3, Mid-Willamette Valley Jobs With Justice turned out a group of 40 protesters outside the Silverton plant, accompanied by a giant balloon of a fat cat strangling a worker. Management was ready for them. Banners hung from the building called on passing motorists to honk if they support local businesses. A company flier in English and Spanish appealed to workers to “tell the union to stop these senseless attacks.”

“Why is the union doing this?” a flier asked. “The answer is simple: The union wants to destroy BrucePac’s business and reputation so we lose customers.… While trying to harm the company, the union’s actions could also harm you and all other BrucePac employees.”

None of that’s true, Roy said.

“We want BrucePac to succeed,” Roy said, “and we want the employees to share the benefits.”

BrucePac didn’t respond to the Labor Press’ invitation to share its version of the story, but did issue a statement to the Salem Statesman-Journal, which reported on the Nov. 3 protest.

“BrucePac recognizes and respects employees’ rights under federal law,” the statement reads. “It has been union-free for several years in large part due to its competitive wages and benefits and employee-focused labor relations.”

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