It’s Time Stand Up for Justice for Workers at Smithfield

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from the Birmingham Jail

Today I want to talk about a cause we all should support: Justice for the workers at Smithfield.  Workers there have been trying to organize a union against a company that appears to be willing to use any and all anti union tactics.  

Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, NC is the world’s largest pork plant. For the past decade workers in the plant have been working to bring in a union to improve working conditions. Here are a few of their stories.

Smithfield is big, big business.  Amd the workers seem small in comparison, at least in terms of power.  That is why they must bargain collectively.  And it’s why their struggle is our struggle.  This is what awaits the middle class as stratification increases in the Two Americas:

“I think some people really believe that all you have to do to succeed in this country is pull yourself up by your bootstraps and work hard.

“Well, I can tell you, I have traveled all over this country and I have been in the places where people’s bootstraps are worn to a thread from all the pulling they’ve been doing. Places where all the hard work in the world hasn’t helped to pull them out of poverty-because the system discriminates and opportunity isn’t equal. But if we come together and are honest about it, we can change that and build an America that gives every American an equal chance.”

John Edwards: “People’s bootstraps are worn to a thread.”

What is Smithfield?

Smithfield Foods is the largest pork producer and processor in the world, the fourth largest turkey processor and fifth largest beef processor in the U.S.

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In fiscal year 2006, Smithfield reported sales of $11.4 Billion dollars.

“Net profits were $172.7 million dollars.”

In fiscal year 2005, Smithfield’s sales were $11.2 Billion dollars, and profits were $296.2 million dollars.

Smithfield Justice: About Smithfield

The largest of the Smithfield Foods facilities is located in Tar Heel, North Carolina. This plant employs approximately 5,500 workers who slaughter and process 32,000 hogs a day. The workforce is approximately 50 perent Latino and 40 percent African-American.

Interfaith Worker Justice, Smithfield workers’ fund

In 1994, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), which now is a Change to Win union, began an organizing campaign at Smithfield.

“I started working at Smithfield in ’93,” Ludlum said. “They fired me in ’94 for trying to organize my fellow workers into a union so we could collectively pursue a better life for our families.”

News 14 Carolina, June 21, 2007: John Edwards pushes for Smithfield union

Smithfield has been fighting unionization since then:

Two previous NLRB elections at the plant resulted in over 50 violations of the law by the company according to the Federal Court of Appeals.

In various legal rulings, the company was found to have assaulted, intimidated, threatened, illegally fired and used racial epithets against workers during the elections.  Over ten years, after the initial violations, the court ordered the company to pay over one million dollars in back wages and reinstate the workers illegally fired.  

Smithfield Justice

Poverty wages, brutal conditions, crippling injuries–5,500 workers in Tar Heel, North Carolina face this every day at the world’s largest hog processing plant. Cited by Human Rights Watch for violating international human rights standards, Smithfield Packing has created an environment of intimidation, racial tension, and sometimes violence for workers who want a voice on the job.

Justice at Smithfield

Human Rights Watch Reports UNFAIR ADVANTAGE, Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States, under International Human Rights Standards and Blood, Sweat, and Fear, Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants  provide more details about the worker’s struggle at Smithfield.

A small excerpt from Blood, Sweat, and Fear:

Smithfield workers have sought union representation from UFCW since soon after the plant opened in 1992. In the Unfair Advantage case study of the Tar Heel plant, Human Rights Watch found “not only abuses of workers’ rights by management but also troubling actions by state and local authorities … state power was used to interfere with workers’ freedom of association in violation of international human rights norms.

“We respect the rights of employees to choose whether they wish to be represented by a union,” Smithfield management told Human Rights Watch in a 2004 written reply to questions about events at the Tar Heel plant.  But new field research for this report found continuing violations of workers’ rights.

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In 1997, the union lost an election at the Tar Heel plant after a campaign marked by unlawful intimidation, coercion, and violence. Over a ten-month period in 1998 and 1999, an NLRB judge presided over a trial on the union’s charges of unfair labor practices and unfair election conduct by Smithfield in the election. The trial followed issuance of what is called a “complaint” in the NLRB system. The NLRB issues complaints when investigations of charges show reasonable cause to believe that workers’ rights have been violated. The board then sets the case for trial before an Administrative Law Judge (ALJ).

The judge in the Smithfield case reviewed documents and heard testimony from all parties and evaluated the credibility of company and union witnesses. All witnesses faced challenging cross-examination by lawyers from the other side. In a 442-page single-spaced decision issued in 2000, the judge made detailed findings of massive abuse against workers trying to exercise their freedom of association.

Former senator John Edwards and actor Danny Glover have already called for increased safety measures at the plant.

Let’s listen to a worker at Smithfield:

Denise Walker:

“People be falling down on floors, people been cut, people always sick. One time I was inside the building and the plant was on fire. They had us still in there working.

“I’m only 23, but my hands are hurt pretty bad. When I worked at Smithfield, I hurt my hands as well as my back, developed pneumonia, and had a miscarriage from standing too long on the job. I also had to deal with sexual harassment from the managers; they could touch you and make nasty comments and there wasn’t nothing you could do unless you wanted to lose your job. I had so many health problems from working there, that they took away my disability and finally fired me for missing work, even though I was in the hospital at the time.”

Workers Voices

Another worker:


Paul Bruce:

“They terminated me and cut off my insurance. Now I don’t have no income coming in, we lost our home, and I have cancer. Don’t know where the money’s going to come from.”

“I worked at Smithfield for two years, but then they fired me ’cause I got sick. I got cancer, and I needed time off for the chemotherapy, but the company said I’d already used up all my sick time taking care of my son after he was injured in an accident. They never told me about the Family Medical Leave Act. While I was in the hospital, they fired me for missing work and cut off my insurance. We lost everything: our home, our savings, even our car insurance. I don’t know where the money’s going to come from.”

Workers Voices

Plase go here and listen to many other Workers Voices

Last October, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union was in the middle of negotiating an historic agreement with Smithfield Foods that could potentially have settled the fourteen-year standoff over union representation at the company’s Tar Heel, NC plant. Without warning, Smithfield abruptly called off talks, and two days later launched a massive, hundred-page racketeering lawsuit against the union and its allies, in effect equating the union with an organized crime syndicate.

DMI Blog: Eric Wingerter, Using a Sledgehammer to Crack a Nut: Smithfield’s Union Busting History

What can we do besides just talk on a blog?  Here’s a few ideas from Smithfield Justice about how we all can help:

How to Help

Here’s another way you can help:

Thank you for visiting the Smithfield Worker Justice Fund online giving page. Your tax-deductible gift, given through Interfaith Worker Justice, will be carefully used to assist families whose primary breadwinner has been unjustly terminated from the Smithfield Foods Packing plant.

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The workers at this plant have been suffering in an environment of intimidation, racial tension, fear and sometimes violence, for wanting a voice on the job. Smithfield has been found liable for physically assaulting an employee, and firing, threatening bodily harm and causing the false arrest of workers for exercising their legal rights.

Interfaith Worker Justice, Smithfield workers’ fund

I am not asking for a political contibution.  This is solidarity with those struggling for justice.  $10, $25, just a little can make a difference.

Give to Interfaith Worker Justice, Smithfield workers’ fund

No matter whom you support for President, both of the Democratic candidates strongy support workers’ rights to organize to bargain collectively.  Please do what you can to help the workers of Smithfield help themselves by forming a union.  

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Remember the words of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Letter from the Birmingham Jail

3 comments

    • TomP on March 6, 2008 at 3:54 pm
      Author

    Justice at Smithfield.

  1. is a spokesperson for Smithfield.

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