Iowa Beef workers: three-month strike is in the deep freeze

The strike by 2,000 employees of Iowa Beef Processors Inc., in effect since June 7, may be a classic example of labor frustration during recessionary times.

Management is demanding a four-year wage freeze. Local 222 of the United Food and Commercial Workers agreed to a two-year freeze and then a review. Management responded by hiring strikebreakers and reopening the plant. Earlier this summer the National Guard was summoned when enraged strikers hurled rocks at the cars of workers entering the plant.

Iowa Beef spokesman Charles Harness denies that the company is trying to break the union. The stocky Mr. Harness, a former local television news anchorman, keeps binoculars near the window of his second-floor office at Iowa Beef headquarters. His air-conditioned cubbyhole provides a ringside view of the sweltering picket line, security guards, and state highway patrolmen parked across the boulevard.

''We don't claim poverty,'' Harness says. ''We are healthy, we are profitable.'' But he says the country's largest beef processor is looking beyond economic issues. ''We are going to manage our plants. Many plants have given control by default to union leadership. We don't think that's right.''

He says there would be ''little stomach'' on management's part to review Iowa Beef's labor relations policies. The basis for the company's relationship with its employees appears to be the philosophy expressed by Harness: ''All they owe us is a good day's work, and all we owe them is a paycheck. We do not feel our employees are a member of our family - we think that would be an insult to their intelligence and to ours.''

Out on the picket line, strikers earn $65 in weekly strike pay by sitting in pairs at 50-foot intervals across the street from the plant. Some women do needlework, men play cards. Normally these employees would earn upward of $9 hourly for slaughtering, processing, and packing beef.

But Local 222 business agent Bill Schmitz insists that the primary issues are economic. A small, tense, former slaughterhouse worker who now manages the union's affairs, Mr. Schmitz hopes to someday win a retirement plan for his people. ''You can't treat people like a sack of garbage,'' he says. ''After you work people for 20 or 30 years, you have a responsibility to them. . . .

''This isn't a depressed company. It's not a company that's on the rocks. What can be more fair than taking a two-year wage freeze and saying in two more years we'll look at it?''

Because of the nation's high unemployment rate, the company has had no difficulty attracting new employees. Among the nation's jobless trickling into Dakota City are Carter, Lois, Bob, and Cheryl. As strikebreakers, they decline to be further identified. They packed all their belongings into two pickup trucks and motored in from Boise, Idaho. Only 33-year-old Lois was hired by Iowa Beef. While she worked, the others camped tailgate-to-tailgate along the Missouri River.

After two weeks, Lois collected her first paycheck and the families, tired of storing food in coolers and fighting off mosquitoes, moved on. They told four strikebreakers camping nearby that Montana sounded more promising.

Other new employees may be more permanent. A group of 20 Cambodians was shepherded to the plant by a Lincoln, Neb., minister. Officials at the bus depot have fielded inquiries from men wanting to move their families down from Duluth and Minot. A center for transients in neighboring Sioux City has sponsored daily carpools to and from Iowa Beef. The plant is currently operating at about 67 percent of prestrike production levels.

According to Dr. Gary Koerselman, a Sioux City councilman and economics professor at nearby Morningside College, the industry's historic labor-management tensions stem from the nature of the business. Beef was once a delicacy, he notes. Not until the Civil War era did processing leaders develop inexpensive techniques.

Yet Americans' acquired taste for beef never has become a staple such as milk or grain. When beef prices soar, Americans eat fish or chicken. The industry operates on a slim 1 percent profit margin. So American beef processors traditionally have been hardheaded about keeping down costs, Dr. Koerselman says , not only with banks and cattlemen, but with labor.

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