Union rallies to gain support from Mountaire poultry workers

Mickey Smith, pointing her drumstick, rallies with United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 27 Mountaire Selbyville chicken plant workers to garner support for today’s vote to continue being represented by the union. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

SELBYVILLE — Mickey Smith, representing the United Food & Commercial Workers Local 27, was banging her drum with purpose on a hot and steamy Monday morning, imploring others to chant “Fired up! Can’t take it no more!”

With Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ popular anthem, “I Won’t Back Down,” also playing in the background, UFCW Local 27 brought in politicians and dignitaries to implore workers at the Mountaire poultry plant in Selbyville to vote Tuesday morning for the union to continue its presence at the plant despite alleged attempts to break it up.

“We’re here because we have a reason that’s atrocious,” said Nelson Hill, assistant to the president of UFCW Local 27, which represents 1,000 workers at the Mountaire plant. “We’re having an election (this morning) that begins at Mountaire. After 43 years of representation, two years after signing a collective bargaining agreement, this company, along with the National Right to Work Foundation and Donald Trump’s National Labor Relations Board, has conspired to try to kick us out of the Mountaire plant in Selbyville.

“The National Right to Work (Foundation) has a plan to try to diminish collective bargaining agreements across this country, starting here in Delaware, and we’re not going to allow it, and we’re going to keep fighting. This is ‘Camp 27,’ as we call it. We’ve been at war with COVID, war with the National Labor Relations Board, and we’ve been at war with (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration), just to get them to do their damn jobs.”

Selbyville’s Mountaire chicken plant workers hold up signs at Monday’s rally in support of UFCW Local 27. (Delaware State News/Mike Finney)

U.S. Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., attended the rally for Mountaire union representation on Monday morning, joined by Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long; state Sen. John Walsh, D-Stanton; state Rep. Edward S. Osienski, D-Newark; state Rep. Kimberly Williams, D-Newport; and Attorney General Kathy Jennings.

After the rally, the crowd paraded a caravan of vehicles past the Mountaire chicken plant, honking horns and displaying signs.

“There’s a vote Tuesday in the middle of three crises,” said Sen. Coons. “We’ve got a pandemic that’s already taken more than 120,000 American lives, we’ve got a recession that’s already knocked 40 million people out of work, and we have a nation where millions of people have taken to the streets in the month after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis.

“All three of those come together in this vote Tuesday because the plants of the Delaware poultry industry only work because of Black and brown workers, and they only have safe conditions because of organized labor. ‘Union represented’ means ‘union proud,’ means ‘union safe’ and means ‘union fair.’”

Mickey Smith bangs her drum to give UCFW Local 27 support at Monday’s rally.

The workers’ union has long been at odds with Mountaire over safety concerns at the facility and unfair labor practices. At least 41 cases of COVID-19 were reported at the Selbyville plant before the company stopped sharing information on new cases back in April.

The union also filed a complaint with OSHA last Saturday because workers at the plant have complained about burning eyes, troubled breathing, respiratory infections and chest pain from breathing in strong chemicals at the facility.

UFCW Local 27 said more than 200 workers are exposed to these harmful chemicals. These complaints had previously been reported to department supervisors and the medical department. Some workers have had to be sent home because they were made sick due to chemical exposure.

Manuel Gonzalez, a chief shop steward at Mountaire, said the chemical fume problem is a serious one for workers.

Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall Long said she attended Monday’s rally to listen to the problems the Mountaire chicken plant workers are facing.

“The chemical (in the plant), we have issues with all the time,” he said. “They say they’ll do something about it, and they don’t do nothing. They say, ‘We’ll turn a fan on.’ I’ve talked to employees where they said they had to get a doctor’s note to get away from the area because the supervisors will pressure them, and they’ve got to work the line. I’ve seen supervisors shrug their shoulders at people who are struggling through this.

“We shouldn’t have to come here to this job and work and smell this chemical. My eyes are watering, my throat’s burning … it’s not right and Mountaire needs to step up. The only way we can get stuff done is if the union is here for us.”

Lt. Gov. Hall-Long said she grew up in Selbyville and was prepared to be a listener Monday.

“I came to listen. I wanted to hear from (the workers),” she said. “I know that our governor and all of us stand firm against Right to Work. We are here to support you in every way. Whether it’s COVID or it’s other workplace issues, the unions have protected us.”

Sen. Walsh said the conditions the employees are forced to work in at the plant are “shameful.”

“It just goes to show today even with this COVID, how they’re hiding behind the COVID to break the workers’ backs,” he said. “This is shameful what this company is doing, and we’re here to support all the union workers.”

Mr. Hill said the union has also filed federal charges against the company for engaging in unfair labor practices.

The most recent charges, filed in May, allege that Mountaire Farms management violated federal labor law by forcing workers represented by the union to attend captive-employee meetings conducted without regard to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention social distancing guidelines; excluding a union shop steward from a COVID-related plant complex site visit and meeting conducted by agents of the CDC and the Delaware Division of Public Health; and engaging in surveillance of a Facebook group maintained to promote acts of mutual aid and protection.

Sen. Chris Coons chats with some workers for the Mountaire chicken plant before speaking at a rally in Selbyville on Monday.

In March, the union also filed a complaint against the company for denying union officials access to the plant, while granting unabated access to other parties. The union filed another charge against Mountaire in April when the company failed to furnish information requested by the union as required under federal law and for granting special privileges to employees campaigning against the union in the plant.

“I’ll tell you what (Mountaire) did do,” said Mr. Hill. “They hired a union-busting firm to hold captive-audience meetings, where our members were 2 feet apart. They covered the cafeteria walls and hallways with anti-union crap, rather than COVID information. They thought it was more important to kick the COVID out than to take care of their workers.

“They don’t want these workers to have representation. They don’t want them to have a voice on the group. They want to have total control, and it’s greed — total greed.”

Mountaire officials did not respond to a request for comment Monday.