More than 5,000 workers at the world’s largest pork processing plant, Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, N.C., approved their first-ever union contract in voting that ended Thursday.

The contract was negotiated by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1208, the union that workers at the plant selected as their representative after a 13-year struggle that drew worldwide attention and support.

The new contract, according to the union, provides for wage increases of $1.50 an hour over the next four years and company-provided affordable family health care coverage. Other improvements include additional paid sick leave and vacation benefits, guaranteed weekly hours, three days of paid funeral leave for workers following the death of immediate family members and a system to resolve workplace issues.

The union’s negotiating team was also able to prevent the company from cutting existing pension plans and won agreement on establishment of joint worker-management safety committees, including company-funded safety training for workers.

“This contract will completely transform our workplace,” said Orlando Williams, spokesperson for the union local in Tar Heel. “This is the biggest four-year wage increase Smithfield workers have ever had and it will make a real difference for our families and in this community.

“We could never have gotten that increase without a chance to bargain with the company,” Williams said, adding, “We will finally have a sense of security on the job because through our union we can make sure we have a safe place to work, and that everyone’s treated fairly.”

The 5,000 members at the Tar Heel union local now join 10,000 other Smithfield workers who are UFCW members. Union members at the company’s other plants throughout the country have been closely watching developments in Tar Heel.

“I know the difference having a union makes,” said Jim Olson, a shop steward at UFCW Local 304A and a 35-year veteran of Smithfield’s John Morrell Plant in Sioux Falls, S.D. “The more meatpacking workers who join our union, the more power we have to raise wages and benefits – in our own local unions, and for everybody who works in this industry. That’s what being in the union is all about.”

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