Instigated by a company hell-bent on keeping out a union, the U.S. government raided the world’s largest pork processing plant, Smithfield Packing, in Tar Heel, N.C., on Jan. 24.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) charged that the company had conspired with federal immigration agents to discourage Smithfield workers from unionizing.
Gene Bruskin, an organizer for the union, said Smithfield has a history of threatening workers with deportation if they try to unionize.
Bruskin told the World, “It is clear that Smithfield has conspired with the INS to orchestrate a raid based on trumped up charges that would result in searches for so-called illegal workers. They did this to discourage the workers from organizing.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents raided the plant on the morning of Jan. 24 and arrested 21 workers — 18 Mexican workers and three Guatemalan workers — all of whom the immigration agency claims are “illegal” and all of whom it says will be deported.
Bruskin said several things point to the obvious “set-up” in this government raid.
He explained that most often when the ICE conducts raids, it links the roundup of “so-called illegals” to various types of alleged criminal activity. “This way they claim they are more interested in fighting crime than in going after minority groups,” he said.
In this latest Smithfield raid none of those arrested were charged with any criminal activity — only charges of civil law violations (immigration law) were filed.
Another union official pointed out that big companies normally go out of their way to avoid spectacular immigration raids at their plants. They’d much rather work quietly and avoid a disruptive raid, he explained, “unless, of course, they are trying to scare the workers who are trying to unionize. Then, a big raid comes in handy.”
When the World questioned Dennis Pittman, Smithfield’s public relations spokesman, he admitted, “Smithfield has been working since last July to verify that 5,200 workers at the plant had legal employment and immigration documents.”
When asked whether the company decision to begin working with the government last July had anything to do with a massive two-day walkout at the plant that month in response to the firing of 50 Latino workers, Pittman said, “No, this was routine.”
The World asked why, if Smithfield’s cooperation with the government amounted to nothing more than routine checking of immigration status, the company would turn over 5,200 names — the names of almost the entire work force at the plant.
Asked if this was designed to coerce workers into keeping quiet and staying away from the union, he replied, “No. You have to list every one to be fair. You check them all because we don’t want people to start accusing us of profiling and God knows what else.”
When asked him whether the raid had anything at all to do with 12 years of struggle by the workers there to be represented by the UFCW, Pittman said, “This has nothing to do with any kind of struggle. There was no struggle. We weren’t trying to terrorize anybody.
“We, I mean it [the raid] was all done very professionally and non-threateningly,” he said. “Nobody called in any helicopters and we didn’t have paddy wagons [sic] or buses where you look out from caged windows or uniformed police or anything like that at all. It was a professional job from beginning to end.”
There is ample evidence that the company has done quite a few “professional” jobs, including violating international human rights standards by retaliating against workers who report their injuries and violating labor laws by using threats, intimidation and violence against workers who tried to organize a union. Human Rights Watch and the National Labor Relations Board have both cited Smithfield for these violations.
The company has also done a “professional” job of trying to create racial tension among white, African American, Native American and immigrant workers.
But workers have also responded by building unity among all races. In addition to the multiracial walkout in July, many Latino workers joined African American workers in a walkout on Martin Luther King’s birthday, demanding it be a paid holiday.
It may be, observers say, that it is just this kind of united action the company fears most and that is prompting it to retaliate with deportations to spread its own type of fear.
The struggle to unionize continues unabated at the plant. Hundreds of workers are involved, the union says, and local unions, civil rights groups and churches nationwide have gotten together with these workers to form the group Justice at Smithfield.