John Morrell & Co. on Monday imposed a contract cutting the wages of 2,000 workers by up to 18% at its strife-torn meatpacking plant.
The union said it would not strike despite a near-unanimous vote against the contract, which one leader said destroyed 50 years of bargaining.
The plant has long been a focus of discord, with violent strikes, lawsuits filed by management and the union and huge fines for safety violations.
The old contract expired Nov. 20, and the company had renewed it on a daily basis. But on Thursday, Morrell declared that talks with the union had reached an impasse, allowing it to impose its own contract.
Strike 'Not in Best Interest'
Members of the Food & Commercial Workers union met on Sunday, and "over 99%" of those voting rejected the contract, said Jim Lyons, local president.
Lyons said a strike would not be in the best interest of the union because it could negate back pay awards or unfair labor practice complaints. More than half the plant's workers are replacements hired during a 1987 strike.
The union said it would file a complaint of unfair labor practices against Morrell. On Friday, company officials said they had filed a National Labor Relations Board complaint charging the union with bad-faith bargaining.
The contract cut wages at the plant from $9.75 an hour to $8 an hour. Benefits and seniority also were cut.
The four-year contract "virtually destroys 50 years of bargaining" and will ruin the standard of living for Morrell workers, Lyons said.
"It's probably the worst contract that's ever been put forward," said Bob Stuerman, a Morrell employee. "We were at the top of the heap, and that brings us down to the bottom."
The contract is not out of line with the meatpacking industry, said Raoul Baxter, Morrell executive vice president. "If we really wanted to punish them, we would have taken them down to $6, which is the real thing out there," he said.
"We would hope they would recognize our need to be competitive and make a recommendation to help us get there," company negotiator Brad Johnson said Sunday night. "But I see no reason for optimism."
More than 200 of the plant's workers are union members who crossed picket lines thrown up in 1987 by striking workers from Morrell's plant at Sioux City, Iowa. About 600 union members were called back to work after the strike, and more than 1,100 replacement workers hired during the strike are on the payroll.
The replacements were making $9.25 an hour before Monday's cut.
In November, an arbitrator ruled that the sympathy strike was legal, that all strikers should be returned to work and that Morrell owed more than $40 million in back pay. Morrell has challenged the award in federal court.
Also last year, a federal jury awarded the company $24.6 million in damages for what the panel decided were three illegal sympathy strikes.
Morrell also is fighting a $4.3-million fine, the largest ever against a single employer by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The fine involved hundreds of serious injuries to hand and arm joints caused by the repetitive motion of the meatpacking line.