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Senators split over packer bill of rights

ST. PAUL -- The 16,000 people working at 320 Minnesota meat packing plants deserve a bill of rights, a rabbi and a union leader told a Senate committee.

Not so, a state senator -- who owns meat packing plants in three states -- countered in a Wednesday exchange.

Sen. Jim Metzen, DFL-South St. Paul, introduced the meat packing employee bill of rights because "we think that these are the right things to do for the tough packing industry."

No vote was taken on the bill. However, Metzen, who worked in a South St. Paul packing plant while in college, said the bill will continue to be discussed and he hopes it will pass this year.

Meat packing is a major Minnesota business, with plants ranging from small two-person firms to those employing hundreds. The bill would apply to all plants that kill and process meat.

The bill would require packing plants to provide employees restrooms and time to use them, adequate rooms for breaks and meals and locker facilities. Also, employers would have to provide an explanation of a worker's rights in that person's native language.

Metzen's measure would create a state ombudsman to keep track of meat packing plant procedures and to protect workers' rights.

A labor and immigrant organization coalition backs the plan, which is opposed by many businesses.

Immigrant workers often don't know their rights because many don't speak English, Bernie Hesse of United Food and Commercial Workers union told the committee.

Rabbi Morris Allen said he has looked at packing plants across the country, but did not mention any in Minnesota that violate what he considers worker rights.

"We saw situations that did not speak to the dignity of the worker," he said about travels with Jewish colleagues to packing plants.

But Sen. Julie Rosen, who with her husband owns eight packing plants, fired back in an unusually emotional response.

Immigrants "are very happy to have those jobs," she said.

Rosen, R-Fairmont, said she does not see the problems the bill was written to fix. Federal rules and laws already cover the issues, she said.

"It is a little offensive," she said, adding the bill gives her industry a black eye. "This is a bill that perhaps stretches it way too far."

However, Metzen said that he could not understand why Rosen or any meat packer who respects workers' rights would object to his proposal.

"Is it too much to ask for a restroom?" he asked.

In some cases, animals are treated better than those who slaughter them and process the meat, he added.

"There are some bad guys out there," said Metzen who presides over the Senate as its president.

"I'm sure 95 percent of packing plants out there are wonderful," Metzen said.

Metzen said he will try to find a way to make the bill more acceptable. "Maybe there is some way to doctor it up a little bit."

After the meeting, Rosen remained frustrated: "They never said what is the problem."

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.