A South Dakota labor leader says he expects Smithfield and the Sioux Falls workers’ union to reach a contract negotiation this week, but if not, to expect a strike.
The pork plant gained national attention when it became a coronavirus hotspot last year.
The 3,700 workers produce about 5% of the nation’s pork each day.
Kooper Caraway is the president of the South Dakota Federation of Labor. He expects Smithfield and the Sioux Falls union to reach a contract agreement this week even though they remain ‘far apart’ on certain issues.
But he says the workers remain ready to strike if the contract isn’t finalized by early next week.
Caraway says the workers are making demands in response to nearby competition and the COVID-19 pandemic. Smithfield was a hotspot where four workers died and nearly 1,300 contracted the virus.
Caraway: “Through this whole time they’re called essential, they’re told this work is essential, they’re called heroes. And I think they come to the negotiation table expecting to be treated like they are essential and expecting to be treated like they are heroes. For management to show the level of disrespect they have at the negotiating table – I think is why you’re seeing the reaction from the workers you’re seeing.”
99% of the union voted to reject an earlier contract offer and 98% authorized a strike if an agreement isn’t met.
Caraway says the union is fighting against cuts to unpaid leave and to preserve a 15-minute afternoon break for those who work at least seven hours a day. Workers also want to raise the baseline pay from $17-an-hour to 19 an hour. That would match the JBS pork plant in nearby Worthington, Minnesota.
A spokeswoman for Smithfield calls the process of multiple contract offers “expected and routine.”
Kiera Lombardo is the chief administrative officer. She wrote in an email that officials will continue discussions with workers.
She did not say whether nonunionized or temporary workers could keep the plant open during a strike.