Closing in on a year of negotiations and the closest to a strike employees have been in almost 35 years, Greeley’s JBS and union representatives this past week were looking sit back down to hash out the remaining sticking points, the biggest of which is a $4 million shift in health-care costs to workers.
“We’re not negotiating with some little butcher shop. This is one of the richest companies in the world,” said Kim Cordova, president of United Food and Commercial Works Local No. 7, which represents roughly 3,000 workers who slaughter 5,000 head a day at the north Greeley plant.
Although the union hasn’t yet decided to strike, Cordova said that day may indeed be coming if JBS doesn’t yield on its proposal to essentially double employees’ health-care costs. The UFCW Local No. 7 JBS membership voted over the weekend to authorize a strike if representatives felt they had no other bargaining options.
If union representatives pull that trigger, they will have to give the company a mandatory 72-hour notice before workers hit the sidelines.
“If the company wants to come back to the table and tell us they don’t want to move, this is how it’s going to be, we’re headed toward a labor dispute,” said Cordova, who helped negotiate the previous five-year contract with JBS. “The members spoke, and said this is not acceptable to them. They can’t afford it.”
JBS officials emailed a one-sentence statement Tuesday night to The Tribune confirming that both sides will go back to the bargaining table.
“The company and union officials today agreed to a scheduled date to resume negotiations,” said JBS spokeswoman Misty Barnes.
Talks, Cordova said, have been held up by a few items, including a proposal to increase health-care deductibles by as much as five times what employees face today.
The company also is proposing to have the power to change the plan at its will.
“You wouldn’t buy a house if you didn’t know what your mortgage payment would be next year, and every year they could increase it,” Cordova said.
If history is any indication, a strike could have serious consequences for the city of Greeley.
“There will be an impact, and it depends on how long it lasts, and what is finally resolved, but it’s something that every city with major employers that have unions has to put up with,” said Leonard Wiest, Greeley’s former city manager.
Wiest managed the city through the only strike at the facility, which was then called Monfort Packing Plant.
Workers went on strike for 73 days in 1980 before Monfort shut down the plant until 1982.
Wiest said the resulting shutdown forced the city to adjust its expected sales tax revenues by about $800,000, and work with water customers who suddenly were about $400,000 in arrears.
“We realized right away it was going to impact sales tax collections, so we adjusted the budget,” Wiest said.
The strike caused issues almost daily for local police, and fostered a lot of ill will socially, Wiest said.
“To get everyone caught up on their water bills, and the social ill feelings, it took probably a couple of years,” Wiest said.
City Manager Roy Otto said the city’s financial staff is in the process of determining how much of a hit the city would take in any number of scenarios, including a mass layoff or a drop in the oil and gas market, which is driving the economy today.
“We want to get prepared to deal with it with the least pain possible,” Otto said of any potential hit to city revenues as a result of such volatility. That could mean shuffling funds to make up for impending losses.
Until now, and under previous plant ownership, contract negotiations had taken at most six months to settle, Cordova said. UFCW has represented workers at the plant since before 1993, she said.
The workers’ most recent five-year contract ended in September 2013, and contract negotiations have been ongoing since August.
Workers are getting anxious of the move to authorize a strike, said Kevin Schneider, secretary/treasurer for UFCW in Lakewood. Workers voted 99 percent in favor of allowing a strike.
“People are now getting frustrated the process is taking so long,” Schneider said. “In the last bargaining session, the company started going backward. Workers said enough is enough. They’re at their end, they’re getting to the point where it needs to be taken care of.”
Workers would have a strike “benefit” from the union — paid for by union dues — but Cordova would not reveal that amount.
“It’s a tough decision for workers to make, but that’s the only recourse they have,” Cordova said. “They’ll be OK on strike-benefit pay for as long as it lasts.”
Cordova said she believes JBS’s acquisition of Pilgrim’s Pride, which has a small percentage of its workers unionized, and most carry “low-level benefits,” has prompted the move to bring all workers down to the same levels across the board — from pork to beef to chicken.
The deal not only calls for increased out-of-pocket costs to employees, but the company’s proposal allows full control to change plans at any time, Cordova said.
“You don’t take a job today thinking you’ll make $10 an hour, knowing the next year you’re going to make $7.50 an hour,” Cordova said. ❖