Red Springs, N.C. — North Carolina is one of the most industrialized states in the country. Yet it still has one of the lowest percentages of workers in unions, though not from lack of trying by labor.
In fact, North Carolina unions have a long and proud history of militancy and determination in the face of vicious corporate and government resistance. It’s a history of intense corporate use of racism, red-baiting and right-to-work laws. Still, workers today in North Carolina continue to fight the very same battles for basic democracy and civil rights that they fought 60 and 80 years ago.
Militant labor history highlights
In April 1929, close to 1,800 textile workers from the Loray Mill in Gastonia struck to protest the firing of five union organizers. Members of the left-led National Textile Workers Union, pursuing their right to organize, ran into what was, and sadly remains today, a particular North Carolina brand of repression. Strikers were driven out of their mill-owned homes. Thugs were deputized by the local police to harass, beat up and arrest strikers. In June the company/state violence culminated in an armed attack on a peaceful picket line made up mostly of women and children. Then the “deputies” and police officers charged into a tent city of evicted strikers, where shots were fired and the Gastonia police chief was shot. “Gastonia,” a symbol of capital’s fierce resistance to union organization, became a battle cry for labor around the country and the world.
In 1974, after a 14-year battle, the Textile Workers Union of America finally won an election to represent 3,000 workers at JP Stevens in Roanoke Rapids. The story was immortalized in the movie “Norma Rae,” loosely based on the real-life experiences of union organizer Crystal Lee Sutton. It took six more years before the Stevens workers finally got their first contract — only after the TWUA merged with the clothing workers into the larger Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union.
In 1999, after 25 long years of bitter struggle, members of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) finally won a contract at Fieldcrest Cannon Mills for 5,000 workers in five mills in the Kannapolis area. Four years later the mills were closed.
That was then, this is now
Today, workers at the largest hog processing plant in the world, Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, are fighting to organize. They have the full support of the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Previous efforts by the UFCW to organize the plant in 1994 and 1997 with traditional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections failed by small margins. In both cases Smithfield used all the traditional anti-union strategies, including racism, intimidation and out-and-out thuggery to defeat the workers.
Incredibly, Smithfield has its own police force in the sprawling 1-million-square-foot Tar Heel plant. North Carolina law not only allows it, but gives it the power to arrest and jail workers in holding cells on the plant’s property. Since its establishment, the Smithfield police have arrested more than 90 workers on the plant grounds. These private police are also allowed to carry concealed weapons. Recently, because of bad publicity, the company has backed off on making arrests.
The Smithfield police force used strong-arm tactics at the plant gates and during voting to defeat the union. This is in addition to “captive audience” meetings where workers are subjected to anti-union propaganda, a paid network of spies, and intense pressure on shop floor supervisors to frame and fire union supporters. Smithfield police chief Danny Priest was found guilty of illegally arresting and beating union activists after the 1997 union election, under North Carolina’s 1871 (anti) Ku Klux Klan Act. Today he is running for Sheriff of Bladen County where the Smithfield plant is located.
Racism is a critical Smithfield tool. Following long-standing racial patterns of segregation, Smithfield continues to divide the meatpacking workers into jobs and departments along racial lines. African Americans predominate on the “kill floor,” while the “cut lines” are generally Latinos, mostly Mexican immigrants. Whites and Native Americans are concentrated mostly in the shipping and receiving, maintenance, warehouse and line supervisory positions.
During the 1997 elections the company held segregated captive audience meetings. Latinos were called in and told that the union would be run by African Americans who would bring in the INS to deport Mexican and other immigrant workers. Latino workers were also told by the company that if they voted for the union they would be deported.
In the company’s meetings with African Americans, the workers were told that the Mexicans were out to take their jobs. The company said the Mexican workers hoped the African Americans would join the union and strike so the Mexicans could move into their jobs. Both Black and Latino workers report that the company often tries to incite racial strife.
Smithfield’s illegal union-busting tactics were so extreme that in 2000 a National Labor Relations Board judge found Smithfield guilty of multiple gross violations of labor law. In both 2000 and 2005, Human Rights Watch issued reports highlighting the many abuses of basic human and civil rights at Smithfield. The case against Smithfield union-busting is well documented.
Smithfield is a horrible place to work. The work is hard, damp, frenetic, full of blood and pain. The plant currently employs about 5,500 workers. Each year the turnover rate is 100 percent. That means each year over 5,000 workers are hired and over 5,000 workers quit or are fired.
Line speeds are incredibly and dangerously fast. Some workers process up to 2,000 hogs an hour. Workers work so close to each other, and work so fast with super-sharp knives, that they often accidentally cut each other or themselves.
Eastern North Carolina Workers Center
When you walk into the Eastern North Carolina Workers Center in Red Springs, you know that North Carolina’s working class continues the long march for justice. The center is co-sponsored by the UFCW and is located about 20 miles away from the Tar Heel plant.
Organizers are in and out — meeting, picking up flyers, reporting on contacts, planning and discussing strategy, arranging legal help, setting up ESL classes and scheduling speakers at community events. They are African American, Latino, white and Native American Indian. The air is vibrant and the discussion is bilingual. On the walls posters proclaim, “Justice at Smithfield,” and “Amnesty for Immigrant Workers.” Posters of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez smile down on all the activity.
I was immediately impressed with the open and friendly atmosphere of the Workers Center. Here I was, a stranger and a journalist, with no appointment. Given the many attacks on these workers and the extensive company use of spies and intimidation, this friendliness to a stranger is a sign of their confidence.
The Workers Center focuses on supporting the Smithfield workers. Eduardo Pena, the lead UFCW organizer at the center, said the main things they deal with are workers compensation, due to the very high number of work-related injuries, and immigration issues. He introduced me to worker/organizers who were glad to share their stories.
Lorena Ramos, who now works for the UFCW, told me about being detained in a company holding area. Lorena and her husband are well-known and strong supporters of the union. They were paraded through the plant in handcuffs and accused of arson. They were held for hours by the company without access to phone calls or lawyers. The charges were later thrown out for lack of evidence, but the company is appealing.
The workers began to tell me stories of walkouts and petition drives in the plant. Julio Vargas was fired with other workers for helping to lead a walkout of cleaners. The NLRB found the company guilty of numerous violations and ordered the workers reinstated with back pay. The company is appealing.
Workers at the Tar Heel plant come from a large radius around the plant. They are dug into the communities all around. They have enlisted support from churches, civil rights and immigrant rights organizations, unions and other community groups.
Civil rights unionism yesterday and today
The more I listened, the more I got excited about the similarity to a previous workers’ struggle in North Carolina. I just happened to be reading “Civil Rights Unionism: Tobacco Workers and the Struggle for Democracy in the Mid-Twentieth-Century South,” by Robert Korstad (University of North Carolina Press: 2003). An incredibly important book about Local 22 of the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers of America-CIO (FTA), it tells the story of tobacco workers organizing the giant RJ Reynolds Company in Winston-Salem in the 1940s.
RJ Reynolds, like Smithfield, ran an extremely segregated factory system and fostered racism and male supremacy to divide the workers. RJ Reynolds, too, had used intimidation, mass firings and racism to block previous traditional union organizing drives.
The Smithfield workers told me about a recent walkout on the “picnic cutting line” protesting a company policy change that limited workers to one knife a shift. Sharp knives are critical to the work. Dull knives slow the cutting and can hurt to use because of the extra pressure needed. Previously every worker was issued two knives at the beginning of the shift so they could switch when the first one got dull. The workers walked off the line and presented their demand to the human resources department. There they were stalled and told to put their grievance in writing. They did. When the company then tried to threaten them, the second shift joined in and the company backed down. Even without a recognized union the Smithfield workers are acting like they have one.
This was so much like the events in Winston-Salem that really got the union movement rolling there in the early 1940s. Union organizers were in Winston-Salem hoping to crack Reynolds. Their big break came when African American women in the tobacco leaf stemming department staged a sit-down and refused to work because of grievances. Reynolds tried to stall, and it led to the shutdown of most of the plant. Reynolds was also forced to back down in the face of this kind of solidarity.
What is striking is the similar approach to organizing. Today at Smithfield, like then at Reynolds, the workers on the shop floor lead the fight. In both cases it is civil rights unionism because the issues go far beyond a union contract, though that is important. The issues include dignity and respect and breaking down race and gender barriers to equality. Both now and then the unions came to stay for the long haul. Building coalitions, community relations and a movement around the union are central themes.
Both Eduardo Pena and Gene Bruskin, the director of the organizing campaign nationally, stressed that the UFCW is there to support the self-organization of the workers. “We decided that the traditional method of flooding a bunch of organizers into the area and doing house calls and leafleting for a few months won’t work here,” said Bruskin. “We needed a way that tells workers that they have to stand up and act on their own behalf and the union will back them up all the way.”
On the way out, I asked one of the fired workers if she wanted her job back in the plant. “Not without the union,” she said.
Scott Marshall (firstname.lastname@example.org) chairs the Communist Party USA Labor Commission.
Go to .
You’ll find lots of ways to support the Smithfield workers, including a Student Solidarity Toolkit, model solidarity resolutions, how to write a letter to the CEO demanding justice, leaflets and other resources. You can also sign up for action alerts from the UFCW.