Labor watches meat plant strike

The impact of high unemployment on labor disputes is being watched closely in the strike by members of the United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) against Iowa Beef Processing Inc. in Dakota City, Neb.

Bargaining lines have hardened. For years unions negotiated sharply higher wages each bargaining round. The recession and unemployment have changed that. Many union leaders say power has shifted - for a time - from labor to management.

That may be changing. There is growing reluctance in other industries to surrender past contract gains unless there is conclusive evidence that concessions will save plants and jobs. The Iowa Beef strike looms as a test of the unions' ability to bargain aggressively in the toughest of times against a profitable employer with a record of militancy in dealing with unions. If the company wins, the effects could be felt not only in meatpacking but also in other industries where high labor costs are considered a problem.

Workers walked out June 7 after turning down Iowa Beef proposals that included a wage freeze and reductions in starting pay. Then Iowa Beef hired replacement workers, the processing facility was reopened, and violence erupted. Nebraska Gov. Charles Thone ordered in national guardsmen to protect nonstrikers. While a few members returned to their jobs at Iowa Beef, most remain on the picket line.

Competitors generally expect Iowa Beef to come out with a victory that could affect the industry's structure, perhaps driving down labor costs. Not all would be happy. The company has highly efficient plants and will be able to sell packaged beef at lower prices than its competitors if labor costs go down.

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