Saturday, February 06, 2016

One Pastor Processes the Poultry Report

Clergy are called to witness. We are invited into incredibly intimate moments--family tragedies, birth of children, loss of job. While there, we have a unique role. By our presence, and with very little voice, we offer an awareness of a larger reality.
At least that's how I tend to think about the office of pastor as witness. We are called to truly see the world.

Yesterday I served as witness for a very complex reality. It was one of those days when I became convinced of a fundamental truth--there are not good or bad people, there are only people functioning with greater or lesser awareness and integrity in the position within systems they find themselves. 

By which I mean, although our ethics typically focus on individual actions, it is systems that really make for good or ill in our world. The principalities and powers are at play (Ephesians 6:12). Each of us is caught up in those systems, and much of our responsibility as Christians is seeking to extricate ourselves from the ways systems enslave us and force us to serve their purposes.

So here is how the day went. I got up and dropped the kids off for school, and then I headed for the Tyson Foods Inc. annual meeting of shareholders. I was present at the invitation of the Interfaith Worker Justice Center of Northwest Arkansas. Outside the Holiday Inn Convention Center, a large group of poultry workers were engaged in direct action. They are campaigning in a quest for dignity and respect for poultry workers, and just yesterday released the first comprehensive report of working conditions at poultry plants across Arkansas.

I stood out in the cold on the highway while Magaly Licolli and Papa Roach and many other friends led cheers and made speeches. I met clergy, primarily United Church of Christ and Unitarian Universalist, who had come in from Ohio and Missouri for the day. I met representatives from Oxfam and Teamsters, and heard stories of work on the lines.

Then we went in to the shareholders meeting. I have to tell you this part was incredibly surreal. First of all, there weren't very many people there. It was a very small crowd. We sat down for the meeting, and we were told that those of us who had anticipated asking questions would be allowed to write questions down, and the company would write us back within seven business days.

Then John Tyson stood at the front and voted down every single shareholder resolution that was brought to the floor. The voting had already taken place, largely by proxy. But the votes are stacked, because the Tyson family themselves have 70% of the votes. So each time, John Tyson would receive a report from the secretary that said, "Such and such resolution received X million votes for, and X million votes against." Then John would say, "The votes speak for themselves, the resolution is defeated." 

In one case, a resolution from the Humane Society, there were actually almost 30% votes cast in favor of the resolution, but since the Tyson family voted against, it failed. To be clear, this means that almost 100% of non-Tyson family votes supported the resolution, but the resolution was still defeated.

The total length of the meeting was about 37 minutes. The only time anyone in the audience attempted to speak to clarify something, she (a nun) received a severe scolding from John. He really ought to send her a letter of apology.

So here's the witness part I wanted to tell you about. I know a lot of the people in this room. One of the chief financial employees has kids the age of ours. I was standing next to Donnie Smith the CEO after the meeting, and he was chatting with shareholders. He mistakenly mentioned one person who had success at losing some weight and looked like a different person, and I was able to step in and clarify, you mean someone else, same name, different last name.

Which then opened up a quick space for conversation, chatter about parishes and ministries in NWA, and my appeal for him to improve worker conditions on the lines at Tyson. He guaranteed me they would get right on it. Since Tyson just reported one of their best financial quarters ever, he had every reason to be pleased and confident.

Meanwhile, the only Latina in the room, Magaly Licolli, who directs IWJ, was standing right next to me. I was her guest and ally for the day. She didn't have a chance to speak. Perhaps I should have tried to get Donnie to talk to her, but he was hustling out of the room for the next meeting. The only person allowed at the mic from our group was the white male Oxfam representative. Nor were any of the protesting workers out on the street invited in for their voices to be heard.

And of course the reason I could jump in and speak to Donnie and others was very simple. My own privilege. I wear a collar, and I'm rather confident, I'm a dude, and I have social connections with every group present in that room.

After the shareholders meeting (and by the way, at this point I am seething, because I know all those board members up there don't want to hear anything about poor conditions for workers on the lines, but they all get a nice quarter of a million dollar check just for serving on the board), we drove over to Tyson corporate offices for a meeting with many leaders there.

Here, the tenor of the meeting changed completely. These people are my people. Some of them are my friends, and my parishioners. Many of the higher level employees at Tyson worked at IBP in Iowa before coming down to Arkansas.  I'm from Iowa. I grew up on a farm there, and my grandfather was in the state legislature. So I know exactly how to chat with this group. We talked about Ragbrai, small town Iowa life, our current hobbies. 

I wasn't anticipating this moment, but we walked into a room full of leaders in the Tyson corporate office, two reps from Oxfam, Magaly, and myself, and the room told us, "We are all ears." Well, at first they wanted to not be all ears, and instead tell us about the problem with Oxfam running ads publicly critical of Tyson, but once we got beyond that point, it was a really promising and hopeful conversation.

I believe in Tyson. As I hear over and over from people in my community, those who work at Tyson are "good people." I live in Tyson's shadow, many Tyson employees are members in my congregation, and I know they intend well, both for the products they make and for the people they employ. Oxfam recognizes that Tyson leads the industry in its policies protecting the dignity of workers. But IWJ NWA gets regular reports that the actual experience of workers still doesn't align with the written policies. 

So the awkward place I find myself is this: these corporate office people are "my people." Yet increasingly the folks who work on the line and come to the Interfaith Worker Justice center with their concerns are also "my people." I didn't grow up knowing many folks who are Latino, but friendships in my adult life, in particular here in NWA, have expanded who I know. So I now find myself as pastor identifying not only with those who work at Tyson corporate, but also those who work on the lines.

And I have trouble reconciling the different perspectives on the company I hear.

So what should a pastor do in this situation? Well, I guess I should go to meetings like this one, and speak the truth as best I know it, and listen as best I can. What I noticed is that supervisors and Tyson corporate employees are more frequently white (and at the top, more frequently men), while those who work on the lines are more frequently Latino, and female, and poor.

Our entire culture is like this. We even have the same problem in our church. So I should not point any fingers I'm not willing to also point at myself, at us. There are many gender and race disparities in employment practices in my own denomination. 

The problems for poultry workers as reported by IWJ of NWA are especially worrisome, however. Worrisome enough that I decided to give a faith perspective at the press release event yesterday. Here's what I wrote:

In 1999, just before the turn of the millennium, my denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, by a wide majority at their national assembly, adopted a social statement recognizing the moral imperative for a sufficient, sustainable livelihood for all people. Recognizing that our present market system does accomplish this for many people, the social statement also advocated for specific practices for extending sufficiency, sustainability, and a just livelihood for all, in particular the poor.

The ELCA called for the enforcement of regulations against discrimination, exploitative work conditions and labor practices, and for the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Employers have a responsibility to treat employees with dignity and respect. This should be reflected in employees’ remuneration, benefits, work conditions, job security, and ongoing job training. No one should be coerced to work under conditions that violate their dignity or freedom, jeopardize their health or safety, result in neglect of their family’s wellbeing, or provide unjust compensation for their labor. 

As a pastor observing many workplace contexts, I notice that often those working at the corporate level are unaware of the privileges they enjoy that others working in the places of production do not. I have been to many corporate offices, and know people have regular access to restrooms, sick leave benefits, safeguards against hazardous working conditions, and policies protecting against workplace discrimination and harassment. I believe these companies values their employees, and are committed to recognizing the dignity of all workers. Where they struggle is in extending these benefits to all their workers, especially those on the lines.

Reading the poultry report and hearing from workers, I believe Tyson, George’s, Cargill, Ozark Mountain Poultry, and Simmons have a responsibility to address all the issues raised in the report. They know they have a responsibility to treat employees with dignity and respect. They have the power to do so. They must, and do it quickly. There is no reason why poultry producers cannot proactively and immediately address and monitor all the issues raised in the report.

Here are the recommendations: Increase enforcement of wage and hour laws; regulate and reduce line speeds to reduce injuries and contamination; guarantee paid sick days for all workers; explore measures to reduce discrimination and harassment of workers and increase mobility for workers of color and foreign-born workers; facilitate workers’ ability to organize collectively for better working conditions; ensure access to bathroom breaks to protect worker health and dignity.

I am supportive of the Shareholder Proposal Regarding Report on Working Conditions, which requests the the Board of Directors cause Tyson Foods to publish, by April 1, 2016 and annually thereafter, a report disclosing objective assessments of working conditions in its processing plants. Reports should include incidents of non-compliance, remedial actions taken and measures contributing to long-term mitigation and improvements. Among other disclosures, data to include: 1) detailed employee injury causes and rates, 2) employee compensation by job type and location, and 3) detailed employee retention rates by job type and location showing average employment lent at Tyson. The report should be publicly-released at reasonable cost, omitting proprietary information.

What gets measured gets managed, and I am convinced that if the poultry industry commits to measuring themselves on the issues raised by shareholders and the Northwest Arkansas Workers’ Justice Center, they will manage truly to make humane and dignified working conditions a reality for all poultry plant employees.

Support of these resolutions and recommendations is in the best interest of consumers, shareholders, poultry industry employees, workers, and our Northwest Arkansas community because poultry corporations, as companies committed to faith and good business practice, are at their best when they work on improving all these issues respond to worker needs. Poultry plant workers are our neighbors, colleagues, and friends. They have been created in the image of God. Let us treat them that way, just as we would like to be treated ourselves.

I do not think anything that IWJ is calling for in their report is particularly onerous for any of the poultry producers to take on and address. Sitting in on the meeting yesterday, I learned that from their perspective, the problem is with the system. They asked a lot of systems questions: How can we get workers to act in their own self-interests? If we put signs up and people don't heed the signs, what should we do? What's the highest priority? Safety? Harassment?  We want to be the best in the industry. Can you tell us what other corporations are doing to improve worker conditions?

This is where I had my main spiritual insight. I think it is absolutely central, essential. In order to really make Tyson the great company it hopes to be, Tyson needs to listen directly to the voices of those most vulnerable in the system. They cannot buffer themselves from those voices. At one point in our meeting, Magaly spoke up and said, "I want workers to come to my office and tell me that things are going great at Tyson, that their concerns have been heard, that they have access to restrooms, that they are safe and well-compensated for their work." 

I think most people working at Tyson corporate want that also. The way it will happen is to get the people at the lowest power position at the company sitting at the table with those at the top. Yesterday, I didn't see that happen. I witnessed the shareholders meeting completely close out any voices it didn't want to hear. It was an exercise in covering eyes and ears and shouting "La La La we're making money" as loudly as it could.

At the meeting at Tyson, I did see listening happening. The group listened respectfully to me, and Magaly, and Oxfam. I think they're going to take action immediately to work on what they heard. But there still weren't any worker voices at that table, and that was missing. They can fix it. I have faith they will.

The same holds true in every system. Often the most vulnerable voices do not get a place at the table, and other more powerful voices attempt to represent them. That never works well. For example, I'm sure my perspectives on all these issues are colored by the double bubble I live in as a pastor. Not only do I cloud my own insights by the exercise of my privilege, but people actually protect me as a pastor and don't always bring all truths to me that they should or could because of my social position in our culture as a religious leader.

So too John Tyson in particular, and Donnie Smith the CEO, and the board, are likely to be quite buffered and safe against external voices because of those same kinds of bubbles.

So here's my promise. I promise to keep listening to Tyson. I promise to keep listening to Interfaith Worker Justice. I promise to keep listening to Oxfam. I promise to keep listening to my many friends and parishioners who work at the major corporations in our community (remember, I also live next to Walmart!). All your perspectives matter. But in the end, I am going to try to find a way to make my voice and witness work for the good of those most vulnerable in any system. I will do this because in the end, in solidarity with the crucified one, Jesus Christ, such witness on behalf of the vulnerable is in the best interest of everyone, even and including those who get million dollar paychecks while their employees who work on the lines are compensated below a living wage and live in poverty. Jesus knew how to be friends with both. It's just that with one group he was in solidarity, and with the other he spoke severe challenge.
"If you achieve a voice that will be heard, you should use it to speak up for the voiceless and oppressed. If you possess any power or authority, you must strive to use it to help and empower the powerless." (Craig Murray)

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