Smithfield drops lawsuit against union

In a victory for workers at the nation’s largest pork processing plant Smithfield Foods, located in Tar Heel, N.C., dropped a racketeering and extortion lawsuit against the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), Oct. 27, with the union agreeing to suspend its economic and publicity campaign against the company.

Both sides agreed to rules for a union organizing election for workers at the slaughterhouse. The union had sought an election under “neutral” auspices but the settlement was sealed, so it is unclear how or when the election will be held.

While company and union officials would not comment, Richard Hurd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University who has tracked this struggle closely, said in a press interview, that the possibility of pro-labor Barack Obama winning the presidency played a role in Smithfield’s decision to settle the case.

People in the labor movement expect an Obama presidency to lead to changes on the National Labor Relations Board making conditions more favorable for unions.

Obama has also pledged to sign into law the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow workers to choose union representation at a worksite when a simple majority sign cards indicating that this is their desire.

This would avoid the current system of holding elections at worksites with the company able to intimidate and fire workers seen as friendly toward the union organizing drive.

Workers went through this process twice at Smithfield, in 1993 and 1997. The union narrowly lost those elections but a federal appeals court determined that Smithfield improperly influenced the process. The company was forced to pay $1.1 million in back wages, plus interest, to workers fired as a result of its union-busting effort.

Since that time the company has worked with the Department of Homeland Security to facilitate massive immigration raids at the plant, also aimed at weakening support for the union.

The company sued the union and an array of other organizations last October, about a year and a half after the groups began a sustained campaign against worker abuse and union busting at the Tar Heel plant. Almost 5,000 workers are employed at the plant, which processes 32,000 hogs per day.

The UFCW has been working to organize the plant for 13 years.

The union insisted that Smithfield’s conduct in the elections made it nearly impossible to hold a fair secret-ballot election and asked that the company recognize the union once a majority of workers signed union cards. Smithfield rejected that approach. Company and union officials will not comment on the deal for the new election because U.S. District Judge Robert Payne has ordered the parties to say nothing further about the accord until after the election.

“The union is getting what they believe is a fair election, and the company is getting them to call off the negative publicity,” Hurd said.

The Smithfield suit was aimed at a wide variety of groups and individuals involved in the fight for justice at the plant. It named not just the union but also Jobs with Justice, Research Associates of America, and Change-to-Win, the labor federation to which the UFCW belongs. Also named were numerous individuals including UFCW President Joe Hansen, the union’s Smithfield campaign director Gene Bruskin, and Andy Stern, SEIU president.

Since the campaign against Smithfield began city councils all over the country have passed resolutions and started boycotts of Smithfield products. The state of Massachussetts has banned the company’s products from all store shelves.

The company filed its lawsuit under a 1970 statute designed to battle gangsters’ extortion schemes – the racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). That act is now being used by companies to silence corporate critics. It has also been used to file suits in recent months against the Service Employees (SEIU) who are trying to organize security guards at Wackenhut and against the UFCW which is trying to organize grocery stores in Arizona.

Smithfield’s lawsuit claimed the campaign against it was resulting in severe financial losses.

“Whatever economic consequences flow from free speech, they are not considered in the law sufficient to deprive people of free speech,” said Joan Bertin, director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. The group is one of many that sees the RICO law as unconstitutional.

The “so called crime” that the unions and the others committed, she said, was to employ strategies long used to educate the public, garner support and pressure a big corporation.

The union’s position has been that it had to mount an aggressive campaign for consumer and community support because Smithfield repeatedly violated laws that are supposed to allow workers to organize.

jwojcik @