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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — In a sign of meatpacking workers becoming emboldened by the pandemic's health threats and economic repercussions, the union at a South Dakota pork processing plant that experienced a bad coronavirus outbreak last year overwhelmingly has rejected a contract offer from Smithfield Foods and will next move to bring the prospect of a strike to the negotiating table.
The Sioux Falls chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union said 99 percent of union members who voted on the new contract offered from Virginia-based Smithfield Foods rejected it.
The escalating labor negotiations are a sign of what might be a renewed boldness among workers in the physically demanding meatpacking industry.
Through the pandemic, workers have organized around pushes for workplace safety and are now navigating an economy where some slaughterhouses, desperate for employees, suddenly have boosted wages.
Smithfield Foods played down the contract rejection, saying it was a “routine” part of negotiations. But the UFCW plans to vote Monday on whether to authorize a walkout.
Union leaders said they view striking as a last resort, as they push for a base wage of $19 an hour to match the rate at a JBS pork plant 70 miles away in Worthington, Minn.
Slaughterhouse jobs usually offer elevated wages and benefits in exchange for the bloody, back-breaking work on butchering lines. But the wage gap is closing between meatpacking jobs and those at fast-food chains or retail stores, union leaders warned.
They said that employees are exhausted after filling voids in the workforce during the pandemic while keeping up with robust demand for meat.
B.J. Motley, the union president, said the company plans to eliminate a 15-minute break period, but Smithfield pushed back on that assertion.
Keira Lombardo, a spokeswoman for the company, said in a statement that its proposal would ensure there are two 15-minute breaks for employees who work eight-hour shifts. She added that the company's offer was “in full alignment” with agreements that the UFCW accepted at other locations.
“This is an expected and routine result at this stage of an ongoing negotiation,” she said of the union's rejection of the company's offer. “Both parties have been proactively planning for and scheduling additional meetings prior to this.”
A strike at the plant, which processes roughly 5 percent of pork products in the United States, could ripple across the industry, from hog farmers to supermarket shelves.
When the plant became an early coronavirus hot spot last year and shut down for several weeks along with others in the Midwest, the industry aggressively lobbied the public and then-President Donald Trump for an order to stay open, arguing they provided an essential service to national security.
However, workers and unions also pushed for protections. At the plant in Sioux Falls, workers demonstrated in April 2020 for the plant to close down as infections spread.
“The pandemic dramatically raised the stakes,” said Colin Gordon, a University of Iowa history professor who has specialized in labor movements.