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Several former employees say there were even underage Guatemalans working at the plant. Margie Salazar says she often ran into boys who worked on the kill floor who looked like they were her kids' age -- 13 or 14 -- with new mustaches just coming in. Once she asked one of them how old he was. Thirteen, he told her. "Why are you working here?" she asked. "We need the work, we need the money," he replied.
Serrato, Salazar and others also said that vans, even buses, full of Guatemalans would sometimes arrive at the plant.
What makes the former workers so angry is not only that they assume they lost their jobs to these immigrants but that the Guatemalans' illegal status and their fear of complaining or reporting injuries made conditions worse for everybody.
Shortly after HM Capital Partners and Booth Creek Management bought a majority interest in ConAgra Foods' beef and pork processing business in September 2002, rumors of firings began circulating at the Cactus plant. By that time Blanca Valenzuela had left her leadership position at the union, so she asked one of the union leaders about the rumors. He said they were true. "Is my name on the list?" she asked. He nodded. "What are you going to do about it?" "There's nothing we can do about it," he answered, explaining that orders had come from corporate headquarters to get rid of injured workers. McHugh says the new policy was agreed upon between management and the union. Local Union 540 leaders at the plant did not return phone calls for comment.
On October 14, 2002, Valenzuela, Salcido and dozens of other workers were called in to speak with Arriaga and, in most cases, safety coordinator Brian Atchley. There was a union steward present at each meeting in which the employees were informed that they were being placed on leave for 18 months. If during that time they were able to work without restrictions, a letter informed them, they could return, and if not, their termination would be formalized.
Salcido hadn't heard any of the rumors, and when she was called in and given the letter she was shocked. "They bought the company, but not the light-duty people," she says Arriaga told her.
"Why don't you get rid of all of the illegals? Why me?" she asked him. He had her escorted out of the building. Tovar, the woman Salcido had comforted in the bathroom and urged to keep working, saw her friend crying as she was led out of the plant. She didn't know that she'd soon be dismissed as well.
All three were incensed by the union's compliance with the firings. "All these people who went home were union members," Valenzuela says. "They turned their backs on us. They didn't even call us to say, 'We're trying to get you back.'"
It's not uncommon for companies to terminate workers unable to do the full range of job tasks, especially in physically demanding industries like meatpacking. "Companies can't be expected to carry people indefinitely," Compa, of Cornell, says. But many of the employees who lost their jobs were still able to work and perform necessary tasks, and Compa adds that the firing of injured workers is a widespread problem that contributes to low injury-reporting rates, especially in nonunionized plants.
"When they fired 25 or 30 workers with filed workers' compensation claims, that set up a chilling effect throughout the plant," says Garcia, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers. "It sent a message saying, 'If you file claims you're gonna get fired.'" Not only did the company reduce workers' compensation costs drastically, it also saved money on wages by replacing longtime employees making between $10 and $13 per hour with new workers at starting salaries, he says. "It was just total exploitation of the labor force by Swift and their corporate overlords," he says.
None of the former workers interviewed was rehired during their 18 months of forced leave. A couple applied for clerical positions but were told they lacked the necessary experience. Salcido did have clerical experience but was denied an office job. She eventually found work as a workers' compensation caseworker at a chiropractic office in Amarillo. Others are still struggling. Salazar saw there was a desk job opening at the Swift plant, but she lacks computer experience. "Thirteen years out there, and they're talking about a computer?" she says. She recently started a clothing business out of her home, and her husband is putting in longer hours as a truck driver to support their six children.
Valenzuela, in her mid-50s and with no savings after raising her six kids alone, had a particularly hard time. Unable to find work in Dumas because most in the small town knew she was injured, she eventually found a job at the Family Dollar store in Amarillo. Despite working double shifts to keep up with the mortgage payments on her house in Dumas, she was unable to make enough money and it was ultimately repossessed. She suffered a heart attack, quit her job and is now living with her daughter.
Who do they blame for their woes? Some point to the Guatemalans, saying there are plenty of Americans who applied for work at the plant but were turned away. Most hold the company responsible, though. Salazar says she doesn't think the plant could operate without newly arrived illegal immigrants, explaining that most Americans who apply "don't last" in the tough conditions. Like most of the other former workers, especially those who came from Mexico and later acquired legal residency, she feels for the Guatemalans. "They know they can't complain about nothin'," she says. Salcido says she gets about two calls per week from Guatemalan plant workers asking what to do about injuries and whether they can file workers' compensation claims. She explains that no matter their legal status, they can. "I told them I'd help them, but none came," she says. "I guess they were still afraid."