The Unitarian Universalist Service Committee advances human rights through grassroots collaborations.
A Positive Step from Tyson but Workers Wait to Celebrate
By Magaly Licolli, Executive Director, NWAWJC, and Phil Hamilton, UUSC on April 28, 2017
For too long poultry workers employed by Tyson have endured harsh working conditions and grave worker violations. After years of standing up to the industry giant, the workers received welcome news this week. On Wendesday, Tyson announced a number of changes that aim to improve the pay, benefits, and work conditions for their employees across the country—a possible step in the right direction following years of advocacy and pressure from UUSC’s partner, Northwest Arkansas Worker Justice Center (NWAWJC), in collaboration with UUSC, Oxfam America, and a broad coalition of allies.
The changes, which will start being implemented later this year, are intended to improve work conditions for Tyson’s more than 97,000 employees in the United States who work in food plants in 24 states across the country. In particular, the changes are designed to ensure that poultry workers are given a voice in the company, and that they benefit from improved safety, compensation, and transparency—all things the poultry workers care deeply about, and have been fighting for, for years. In the words of Magaly Licolli, the Executive Director of NWAWJC, “Tyson’s new commitments mean a lot for all poultry workers. Every day we hear horrible stories of what happens inside poultry plants, and these commitments give poultry workers hope for the future of their campaign to continue pushing other poultry companies to follow. We’ll still encourage workers to keep monitoring these changes and to tell us what’s going on inside the plants. Definitely, this is a new phase of the campaign. It is not the end, but the continuation of the fight to ensure these changes are real for all Tyson’s processing workers.”
A Step in the Right Direction, but More Work to be Done
While NWAWJC and its allies recognize that the announcement of these changes may be a first step in the right direction, they also emphasize that the struggle is not over. Magaly Licolli emphasizes, “Given the corporation’s history of serious health and safety violations and its lack of accountability to workers’ rights, NWAWJC will be ready to hold Tyson accountable to their commitments to workers’ rights the moment they waiver.” It is now time to stand with NWAWJC and ramp up the pressure on Tyson to ensure that these changes are implemented and that conditions for workers are improved as a result.
Tyson, headquartered in Springdale, Arkansas, is the largest poultry company in the country, with 30% of its estimated $37 billion in annual sales coming from its chicken products. However, the profits have come at a high cost born by the low-wage men and women they employ who have reported significant worker rights violations over the years. As documented in a 2016 report of working conditions in Arkansas’s poultry plants produced by NWAWJC, with support from UUSC, The Food Labor Research Center, and the University of California Santa Cruz, poultry workers in the state faced a wide range of dangerous and difficult working conditions. Of the poultry workers surveyed for the report:
- 62% had experienced wage theft
- 91% did not have access to earned sick leave
- 51% reported experiencing discrimination
- 44% reported experiencing verbal or sexual harassment
UUSC’s researcher, Amber Moulton noted, “NWAWJC’s report, based on a survey of 500 Arkansas poultry workers, provides hard evidence of discrimination, inhumane and unsafe working conditions, and unlawful wage and hour violations. We are thrilled that the report has contributed to this important step by Tyson and hope to see continued improvements in the future.”
A series of factors appears to have contributed to this change from Tyson, which had otherwise resisted efforts to improve working conditions. In particular, in December 2016, Tyson underwent a shakeup of their leadership which resulted in Tom Hayes being named Tyson’s new CEO. It appears that this change of leadership reflected the pressure that Tyson was feeling as a result of NWAWJC’s advocacy, and the advocacy of their allies, including UUSC’s state-wide poultry report.
UUSC has partnered with NWAWJC, through support for their research report and advocacy conducted outside Tyson’s February 2016 shareholder meeting, in order to support their efforts to organize the workers in Arkansas’ poultry industry, many of whom are low-wage Latinx and Marshallese workers. UUSC is proud to stand with NWAWJC in advocating for improved conditions at Tyson. As Licolli added, “UUSC has been a key partner in this campaign, they’ve been supporting the work of the Center for several years now, and we appreciate all the efforts they’ve made to support the poultry campaign.”
With May Day quickly approaching, there are a number of local actions taking place, that will provide an opportunity to advocate for worker rights. Food Chain Workers Alliance (FCWA), is helping to organize a national general strike, in which NWAWJC and UUSC partner, Rural Community Workers Alliance, will be participating.