story by Ryan Saylor
A vote on unionization at O.K. Foods that was expected to take place in late 2013 is now likely to take place later this year, according to a union that has been organizing employees at the company's facility in Fort Smith, as well as facilities in Muldrow and Heavener, Okla.
Anthony Elmo, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), said the delay was a result of the company providing the UFCW with a larger than expected manifest of employees in the run up to the planned vote.
"In the process of giving us the list, which they have to do by law, that list was 600 (more) people (than the union was aware of). We didn't feel we could have a fair election (on whether or not to unionize) until contacting those workers to see if they supported the union or not. So that's where we are."
He said the unionization efforts began long before the proposed vote was to take place, with the Fort Smith location seeing the beginnings of the unionization push in about January or February of last year, while the Oklahoma sites started to see the push in the Fall of 2013. The purpose for pushing the unionization effort, Elmo said, was about fairness.
"Across the three plants, we got people coming to us," he said. "Their main issues revolve around wages, being low for the jobs they're doing. There was also a general level of unease."
Elmo said the UFCW, an international union that represents 1.5 million grocery and food production workers in the United States and Canada, was responding to the requests of many workers in the three facilities with a goal to "get workers the best possible contract, wages and benefits from their employer. Our philosophy is they have more leverage as a group than individually."
"Right now, they have a one to one relationship. The employer holds all the chips. All the employee can do is quit. We don't feel that that is right. We feel they should reform. We want to help these workers to fix OK Foods and make it a more fair workplace — with better insurance, a better retirement package. We want a more fair future."
Christopher Roy, officer-in-charge of the Memphis office of the National Labor Relations Board, confirmed the unionization efforts in a telephone call Thursday (March 6), though the NLRB was unable to provide publicly disclosable documents on the OK Foods case by publication.
"A petition was filed (to hold an election on whether to unionize or not) and then after the petition was filed, we undertook efforts to arrange with the parties a mutually agreeable date, time and place to hold the election," Roy said.
Elmo said while the petition has been withdrawn, it was not due to any unnecessary pressures from OK Foods but instead was simply due to the large number of people who he said had a right to know about the vote and what it could mean for their future.
And he said it is a future that the majority of employees in Mexico of OK Foods' parent company, Industrias Bachoco, have already decided should include a union.
"OK Foods, the American side, is not unionized (at any locations). But Bachoco, that company is a majority union company. Sixty percent of their employees are unionized with very fair contracts," according to Elmo.
Industrias Bachoco, which was trading on the NYSE at $43.10 late Thursday, had estimated earnings per share of $2.92 and total net income of $146.03 million, reason enough for Elmo to suggest that workers at the Fort Smith and Oklahoma facilities vote in favor of unionization when the issue comes back up later this year.
"(OK Foods is) a very successful company," he said. "It's part of why Bachoco bought them. I don't think paying better wages is going to hurt this company. I think it helps. It will reduce turnover. Right now, this company blows through employees. They are constantly bringing in new help. My argument to this company would be if these people thought these jobs were better and more stable, the turnover would go down and you would see increased cost savings from that. From a corporate perspective, I would say they may want to give this a look."
OK Foods did not respond to a request for comment.