United Food and Commercial Workers Local 27 is fighting for its life — literally and figuratively.
Representing almost 800 workers at a poultry plant in Selbyville, Delaware, Local 27 is at the center of a coronavirus hotspot that has afflicted an unknown number of its members. Those workers — including Latinx and Haitian immigrants, some of them undocumented — not only lack appropriate protection, the union says, but the virus is also now part of a strategy to break the union in a vote next week.
The union’s opponent is a massive poultry company called Mountaire, which is owned by GOP megadonor Ron Cameron, and denies the union’s allegations.
At every turn, however, the union appears to be without allies. It has lost one battle after another with the Trump administration. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for instance, rejected a complaint about workplace safety because Mountaire said everything was fine.
And the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ordered a June 17 vote that could end more than 40 years of union representation there. Plus, the right-wing anti-union group The National Right-to-Work Legal Defense Foundation is now helping Mountaire, for free.
Despite the Democratic Party’s historic alliance with labor, however, even Delaware’s congressional delegation has not taken up UFCW 27’s cause.
Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), who is facing a primary in September, has extensive ties to both Mountaire and its law firm. Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show that Coons has taken more than $225,000 from lawyers who work for Young Conaway, the law firm now trying to bust the union. Local 27, by contrast, has given Coons $12,500, none of it in this election cycle. And now, in the nearly non-existent ranks of Local 27’s defenders, Coons is nowhere to be seen.
When The Young Turks asked about the donations, and what actions Coons has taken on the union’s behalf, campaign spokesperson Sean Coit provided TYT with a statement:
“Throughout his career, Chris has always fought for Delaware workers, and that's why he's been endorsed once again this year by Delaware's leading organized labor organizations, including the Delaware Building Trades. Chris has also been proud to receive support from families, businesses, and communities throughout Delaware, and his campaign has received donations from thousands of Delawareans up and down the state.”
Jess Scarane, Coons’ opponent in the September Democratic primary, told TYT, "I stand with UFCW workers today and every day as they fight to protect their union from decertification. Chris Coons' silence is deafening.”
Kerri Evelyn Harris, who challenged Sen. Tom Carper (D-DE) in the 2018 primary, did not comment on Coons specifically, but told TYT, “We’re not standing with labor the way we should be standing with labor.”
She said, “We have people in the poultry industry right now who are literally putting their lives on the line, and while we use labor rights in our platform, when it comes time for us to stand up on that platform for them, we’re relatively absent.”
Referring to Coons’ efforts on behalf of Mountaire, a major employer in Delaware, Scarane said, “It's outrageous that while poultry workers are fighting for basic rights and workplace protections, Coons only pushes to funnel more money to the very corporations that are oppressing and abusing these workers.”
Defending a bill to exempt poultry firms such as Mountaire from emission-reporting requirements, Coons said in 2018, “Strong environmental protections must be balanced with an approach that makes sense for farmers.”
Organizing in the Time of Coronavirus
As Judd Legum has noted, Mountaire has a coronavirus problem.
Across the country, coronavirus hotspots have popped up at meat processing plants, where workers toil in close quarters and notoriously harsh environments.
At least 20 workers have died nationwide.
In Mountaire’s Delaware and North Carolina facilities, 134 cases of coronavirus have been reported among its workers. Then the company started keeping its coronavirus infections secret, telling the union in a May 15 letter, “Currently, we are not releasing information on COVID positives.”
In an April 20 statement, the company outlined measures it has taken, including temperature checks, plexiglass barriers, additional cleaning and disinfecting, and increased social distancing.
Ten days later, however, the union wrote to Mountaire, alleging that “conditions...are not much different.”
The April 30 letter said that employees still had to pass shoulder-to-shoulder, sharing bathrooms and changing rooms. In May, the union filed a grievance alleging workers were being charged for protective attire and tools. The union has also been demanding full pay for sick or quarantined workers.
In addition, Local 27 claims that Mountaire used coronavirus as a pretext to deny access to union representatives, some of whom do not speak English. And, the union claims, Mountaire has given unique privileges and assistance to the employee seeking to decertify the union, helping him lobby workers against the union. The company also allegedly posted anti-union messages internally.
In an April NLRB complaint, the union said Mountaire had “interfered with, restrained, and coerced its employees in the exercise of rights...by maintaining work rules that prevent or discourage employees from engaging in protected concerted activities.”
Specifically, Local 27 claims that Mountaire has not disclosed records the union needs to determine whether workers are being treated equitably. Of particular focus is whether union organizers are being denied access to workers at a time when Mountaire is pushing them to vote against keeping the union.
Since around May 1, the union claims, Mountaire has been “compelling bargaining unit members to attend captive employee meeting(s) conducted without regard to CDC COVID social distancing guidelines,” excluding a shop steward from a government site visit, and “engaging in surveillance of a [worker] Facebook group.”
Mountaire has denied these claims and the worker seeking to decertify the union has accused it of threats and intimidation.
At the same time, Local 27 is fighting a workplace safety issue that predates the virus. Last month, OSHA sided with Mountaire after another employee filed a complaint that he was “having trouble breathing and chest pains due to Peracetic Acid (PAA) exposure in the Party Wings area.”
In a May 13 letter, an OSHA official responded that, “Mountaire Farms...has advised me that the hazards you complained about have been investigated. The employer states that the issue complained about does not exist. … With this information, OSHA feels the case can be closed on the grounds that the hazardous condition(s) did not exist.”
Mountaire cited an assessment which found PAA and other chemical levels were within federal limits.
The union’s current battle is not the first time Coons has been accused of staying on the sidelines when Delaware residents went up against Mountaire.
When Coons and other Delaware Democrats pushed exemptions to emissions reporting, a League of Women Voters chapter urged members to contact Coons and other Democrats “to express their concerns” about the legislation.
In 2018, the Wilmington News Journal shined a spotlight on Coons and other Democrats publicly demanding clean water for residents of Blades, where nitrates were found in the public water supply. The paper compared the Democratic action for Blades with the party’s silence about much higher levels of nitrates in the water of Mountaire’s neighbors.
The firm in that case, Parkowski Guerke, had also donated to Coons, giving him $3550 over the years.
Coons’ Top Donor
Both of the Young Conaway attorneys who got the NLRB to order the new union election on June 17 at Mountaire have donated to Coons, FEC filings show.
Lead attorney Barry Willoughby, who has represented Mountaire as far back as 1984, has given Coons at least $9800 over the years. It was Willoughby who argued that a new election was needed because the current union contract — which Willoughby himself negotiated — is illegal.
The Young Conaway associate on the case, Lauren Russell, has only made one federal donation: $50 to Coons last year.
All told, Young Conaway employees have donated to Coons 252 times since his first Senate election in 2010. No other company’s employees have donated more to Coons, according to an analysis by the Center for Responsive Politics.
Despite the overall Democratic bent to Young Conaway’s federal donations, none of its employees have given to Coons’ primary challenger or to any of Coons’ Republican opponents.
An analysis of FEC records shows that all but nine of the 58 partners at Young Conaway have donated to Coons.
In fact, Coons is also supported by Young Conaway partners who donate primarily to Republicans.
Partner Tim Houseal shows up in FEC records as having made 61 federal donations, only four of them to Democrats. He gave to Coons’ predecessor, then-Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) in 2005. The other three Democratic donations were all to Coons: $250 each in 2013 and 2014, and $500 last year.
Other than Coons, all of Houseal’s donations in the past five years have gone to Republicans, including Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO), Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), and Delaware’s state Republican committee.
Young Conaway did not respond to a request for comment, but Houseal told TYT that cross-ballot donations are part of “The Delaware Way,” saying “we pride ourselves on being independent.” The state’s bipartisan ethos has been embraced by its political sons — from Joe Biden on down — but criticized by progressives for elevating business interests while excluding the disenfranchised.
Houseal is active in the state and national Republican Party, having served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention and on the Senate campaign of Mike Castle, whose primary loss to Christine O’Donnell made it easier for Coons to win his first election to the Senate.
The story of Houseal’s support for Coons and other Democrats is not unusual for the nation’s smallest state: It’s personal.
Houseal said he used to live across the street from Coons and described them as “close.” He said he was also friends with Biden’s late son, Beau. At Beau’s funeral, Houseal says, Biden “grabs my hand and pulls me in and says, ‘Timmy, I know you were Beau’s friend,’ and he gave me this big hug. And I’m starting to cry just thinking about this.”
Houseal said he was not aware that Young Conaway was representing Mountaire. Another partner, Emily Burton, also told TYT she was not aware of the firm’s work for the company.
Unlike Houseal, Burton’s donations lean toward progressive women, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the presidential campaign of Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Burton is one of the nine current partners who have not donated to Coons.
“I wasn't aware of the union fight,” Burton said. Instead, she said, “I can explain Young Conaway’s contributions to Chris Coons: Chris Coons is on the [Senate] Judiciary Committee. Young Conaway is primarily bankruptcy, more than half of our attorneys are bankruptcy attorneys.”
Federal law currently makes Delaware an appealing venue for companies around the country to file for bankruptcy, so bankruptcy practice exceptionally lucrative there.
“If bankruptcy venue ended in Delaware, then all of those bankruptcies would likely be filed elsewhere,” Burton said. “That would crater Young Conaway’s bankruptcy department, so Young Conaway has been supporting Chris Coons solidly.”
Coons has been on the front lines repelling attempts to make other states more competitive as venues for corporations to incorporate and file for bankruptcy protection. “Coons comes in and talks to our firm every year and seems to be responsive,” Burton said.
She suggested that the relatively small size of Young Conaway’s labor and employment practice makes it unlikely there’s any connection between the firm’s work for Mountaire and donations to Coons.
“Given the number of partners you’re talking about, it would be weird for us all to get together to do something for the labor-employment section, given its size, even if it was on our radar,” she said.
“To my knowledge, the Young Conaway-Chris Coons connection has nothing to do with one case there [in the labor-employment section] and everything to do with bankruptcy venue. Because I know when he’s here and we talk to him, it's bankruptcy venue.”
Coons, however, has other ties to Mountaire beyond donations from one of its law firms.
As TYT previously reported, Mountaire owner and chairman Ron Cameron is one of the nation’s top Republican megadonors — but has never supported a Republican against Coons (and both are active in the National Prayer Breakfast). And the National Chicken Council, which Cameron and Mountaire donate to, has helped Coons by donating to his political action committee, despite leaning Republican in other states. The trade group has given Coons $20,000, half of it last year.
Today, Coons’ chief counsel is a lawyer who used to work for the National Chicken Council’s lobbying firm. That firm, Hogan Lovells, has also donated to Coons through its political action committee, and disclosed lobbying the federal government on behalf of the National Chicken Council on issues related to the coronavirus.
Specifically, the lobbyist contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about worker safety issues and the US Dept. of Agriculture on the designation of essential workers.
In her statement, Scarane called out the poultry group’s donations, saying, “Chris Coons takes thousands of dollars in donations from the National Chicken Council, and his actions have shown that he stands with his corporate donors instead of the workers and residents he was elected to represent. We need to fight for workers' rights, strengthen unions, hold corporations accountable for their abuses, and make sure every single one of us has a dignified standard of living."