Jim Adams started at Smithfield Packing on the hog kill floor assembly line. He was hurt on his first day, and by the time his second shift ended he knew he’d better keep his mouth shut and try to ignore the pain if he wanted to keep his job.
During his first few months he kept getting hurt, until after eight months he tore the cartilage in his right knee, slipped and fell on a blade and slashed his arm and hand through the tendons.
The emergency room doctors and his personal physician said the injury was due to his job, but Smithfield denied him worker’s compensation. He had to take unpaid leave to have two surgeries. His leave time ran out before a third scheduled operation and the company fired him.
“This hand is useless,” he said while describing his predicament during a phone conversation with him in January. “I am the only breadwinner for my family — three boys, a wife — and I owe $40,000 in medical bills. I can’t afford the third operation.”
Injury a byproduct from 8 million hogs a year
The Jim Adams story is common at the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse and pork processing plant — Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, N.C.
More than 5,000 workers there kill and process 8 million hogs every year. Working conditions are notoriously tough at hog slaughterhouses, but at Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant the assembly line speeds are so fast that they make working conditions brutal and lead to disabling injuries.
There is a history of abuse at the Tar Heel plant. Human Rights Watch, a respected international organization, has cited Smithfield Packing for violating international human rights standards and for retaliating against those who report their injuries. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that Smithfield violated labor law by using threats, intimidation and violence against workers who tried to organize a union.
Management pushes racism, sexual harassment
There is ample evidence that the company is creating racial tension among white, African American, Native American and immigrant workers. Jim Adams said that a supervisor told him, “The union won’t ever get approved because we know how to turn Blacks against the Mexicans and the Mexicans against Blacks.”
Ronnie Ann Simmons, who has worked for Smithfield for 10 years, told a reporter for Working America last December that she’ll never forget the violence she witnessed during the union certification vote.
“When we had the vote for the union, you had to fight to get in,” she said. “Once you got in, it was crazy. Supervisors were hollering racial slurs, the police were everywhere, it was ugly. They were shoving and beating people and laughing about it — all because we wanted our rights.”
Sexually harassed by management at Smithfield, then fired after missing work for medical reasons, Denise Walker told the Justice at Smithfield web site that no matter what the injury, illness or dangerous conditions, management doesn’t care.
“One time I was inside the building and the plant was on fire,” Walker said. “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,” she said.
“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.”
Unions make a difference
Smithfield’s workers first came to the United Food and Commercial Workers in 1994 seeking a voice on the job.
During each of the two subsequent elections for the union, Smithfield harassed, threatened and spied on workers suspected of supporting the union. In each of the elections the workers narrowly lost the right to be represented by the UFCW.
The situation at unionized meat processing and packaging plants is much different than the one that exists at Tar Heel.
Union plants, including some Smithfield plants in Iowa and South Dakota, have safety committees and workers have a union contract with decent wages and benefits.
Union plants are profitable and can generate millions of dollars for local economies, providing jobs and a stable tax base for public education, health care, safety and other vital services in the community.
Detailed documentation of abuse at Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant can be found in two reports issued by Human Rights Watch. One is titled “Unfair Advantage” and the other “Blood, Sweat and Fear.”
Only one of such abuses of power was the formation by Smithfield of an armed security squad that roamed the plant and arrested workers on the site. Public outcry in North Carolina forced the company to disband the squad.
The struggle continues
Despite all the pressure, there are literally hundreds of workers at the plant actively fighting for the right to unionize. Local unions nationwide, civil rights groups and churches have gotten together with these workers to form Justice at Smithfield and there have been marches, actions and protest in towns and cities across the United States. Workers wear Justice at Smithfield T-shirts to work, and when the company recently ordered wholesale firings of immigrants, hundreds of workers walked off the job in protest.
Late last year there even was an “International Day of Action” that involved support rallies by unionized workers in U.S. plants and by workers in Smithfield-owned plants in Poland and Spain.
John Wojcik is a shop steward for the United Food and Commercial Workers union in northern New Jersey.
What you can do
There are several things everyone can do to support the struggle of the Smithfield workers.
One is to learn about the issues. Log onto to get information.
Second, be an informed consumer. Don’t purchase products packaged with abuse at Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant. This includes Smithfield bacon, popular across the country. Visit the web site listed above to learn how to identify products made in Tar Heel.
Third, write letters. You can e-mail Smithfield Chairman Joe Luter III and the new CEO Larry Pope from the web site listed above. Demand that they sit down and negotiate with the workers. Fourth, support any solidarity actions that take place in your area.