August 9th, 2020
There was a demonstration on Friday in front of the Strauss Brands facility in Franklin, Wisconsin. The event was organized by Voces de la Frontera. I participated. I wasn’t a big part of the protest, but I showed up.
Strauss Brands processes meat products, in particular veal and lamb. A large number of the company’s employees are Latinx. Thirty-one of them were recently fired. Why?
I will let Voces de la Frontera answer that:
“As Wisconsin struggled through the most difficult days of the pandemic, Strauss Brands in Franklin forced its workers to continue working in its meat packing plants without safe distancing, failed to provide hazard pay and protective equipment, gave inadequate and arbitrary paid sick days for workers infected with COVID-19, and failed to inform workers of possible exposure.
When workers sought the help of Voces in filing a complaint with OSHA and the health department, they were fired, and subjected to racist treatment from Strauss’ HR director.”
Strauss’ official reason for firing these thirty-one employees was that the company had received Social Security No Match letters from the Social Security Administration (SSA) concerning these workers. These letters are typically sent to an employer to alert them to the fact that the SSN that the employee is using does not match the records of the SSA. However, this type of letter is not evidence that the employee lacks proper immigration status. These letters are not sufficient grounds to fire a worker. The letters from the SSA certainly are not, by themselves, enough to get rid of workers who have been at Strauss for ten to twenty years. Even if these letters from the SSA were reasonable grounds for dismissing these people, it seems a bit odd that Strauss did not notice, or show any concern about, discrepancies regarding social security numbers in the years prior to the pandemic. SSN’s that don’t match should have shown up on the workers’ W-2 forms each and every year. Suddenly, these mismatched social security numbers are a big deal.
I worked in a corporate environment for decades. I know from experience that, if a company really wants to get rid of an employee, it will find a way to do so. The reason for firing the worker may have nothing to do with the real problem. The fact is that, with time and patience, any employer can make somebody go away.
What is impressive with the action by Strauss is that they managed to kick out thirty-one workers simultaneously. By eliminating that many workers at once, the HR director made things look very suspicious. The whole affair stinks of retaliation.
The demonstration itself was a well-organized event. Well, it was as well-organized as a street rally can be. Voces had made arrangements with the Franklin Police Department, and the cops were there to keep things safe. Voces really does a good job coordinating with local law enforcement. Voces had several marshals on hand to keep protesters out of the way of traffic, and to maintain social distancing. There was a low level of chaos. A certain amount of confusion is inherent in any kind of demonstration. At Strauss it was kept to a minimum.
I don’t know how many people actually showed up. I’m going to guess between fifty and one hundred. We walked from the nearby Sports Complex parking lot to the Strauss building. People carried signs and banners, all the usual accouterments of a protest march. Most everyone wore masks, and we tried to keep six feet apart. Demonstrating during a pandemic is kind of awkward.
We were greeted upon our arrival at Strauss by a woman at a table covered with job applications. I’m not sure who the lady was, possibly the HR director. She had a broad smile on her face. I laughed. I appreciate dark humor. Other people in our group were enraged. They started yelling,
“Shame on Strauss! Shame on you!”
After a while, the woman walked away from us. She left her table full of papers where it was. As time went on, the job applications were caught by the breeze and started to blow away.
We all formed a picket line and walked back and forth in front of the Strauss building. A few folks from Voces tried to get the crowd wound up. They started chanting:
“What do we want?!”
“When do we want it?!”
The rabblerousers alternated between English and Spanish:
“¿Qué es lo que queremos?!”
“¿Cuándo lo queremos?!”
That sort of thing went on and on as we walked. I’m not a big fan of people shouting slogans. However, a noisy protest gets news coverage, and this one sure did. I’m not certain which members of the media were there, but I saw plenty of TV cameras and microphones. The whole point of a demonstration is to get somebody’s attention. Protests don’t often change hearts and minds, but they make people conscious of an issue. This demonstration made people aware, at least for a moment.