For many years the name Smithfield Packing was synonymous with violation of international human rights standards, retaliation against workers who reported injuries, threats, intimidation and violence against workers trying to organize a union. The company earned that reputation at its Tarheel, N.C plant where assembly line speeds were so fast that hundreds suffered brutal and disabling injuries.
Last year the workers there began to awaken from their nightmare with the victory of their long fight to unionize the plant. They are now represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers.
Now, it seems, the company has learned nothing from its losing battle in Tar Heel. The union reports that the company is repeating its old tactics at yet another Smithfield plant – this one in Wilson, N.C. The UFCW says it is determined to win, however, even if, as it did in Tar Heel, it takes more than 10 years and numerous tries before the plant is organized.
The union charges that three weeks ago, the Wilson workers, fired up over the victory at the Tar Heel plant, signed cards authorizing the UFCW to be their representative. The campaign to get the signatures of the vast majority of the plant’s 550 workers began in January.
The Wilson workers, like their colleagues in Tar Heel, had the help of community activists and the North Carolina NAACP.
The UFCW notes that under the “majority sign-up” section of the Employee Free Choice Act, the union would already be in place at the plant. Cards signed by a verified majority of Wilson workers would require instant recognition by Smithfield’s management.
Since the Employee Free Choice Act isn’t the law of the land yet, Smithfield has already been able to engage in the same anti-union and labor law breaking that resulted in three National Labor relations Board hearings and at least one federal court case at Tar Heel.
The union says the company is harassing workers, has already fired two pro-union workers to intimidate others, and is “dividing Wilson workers to keep them from coming together for a voice on the job.” All of this has happened even without the setting of a date yet for a union election.
One of the leaders in the signature gathering campaign at the Wilson plant told the World that “Smithfield called in the cops to scare workers and union organizers who were on public property while they were handing out flyers. We weren’t allowed to do this on company property. All of us who were handing out the flyers were not on duty. The cops and supervisors told us that we were not allowed to hand out leaflets in the employee parking lot.”
Labor lawyers agree unanimously that handing out literature in an employee parking lot is completely legal, even under current labor law. They also note, however, that penalties for violating those laws are notoriously light. Even if a company is found guilty of a violation the penalty is usually nothing more than a requirement that the company post a notice promising not to break the law again.
The Employee Free Choice Act would also increase penalties companies have to pay when they break the law.
During the three weeks since the authorization cards were submitted workers at the Wilson plant have already been forced to attend what the union calls “captive audience” meetings “where supervisors spread misinformation about the union,” the UFCW said.
Although the Employee Free Choice Act would not outlaw these meeting, which workers must attend under penalty of being fired, instant “majority sign-up” recognition would eliminate much of the time companies now have to hold them.
“The legislation would hold employers accountable when they use dirty, illegal tactics to intimidate workers into voting no. If Employee Free Choice were law, Wilson workers could have chosen freely, without enduring a pressure campaign on the job every day,” the union said.