North Carolina pork packers undeterred

On the same day that hundreds of Smithfield workers in the company’s Tar Heel, N.C., plant boldly wore union T-shirts to work in a show of solidarity, 75 community supporters turned out in support at a supermarket in nearby Fayetteville, July 21. The demonstrators highlighted what they called “inhumane and unsafe” working conditions at the world’s largest pork processing plant and Smithfield’s anti-union tactics.

In the latest development in a 10-year struggle, Smithfield, which broke labor law repeatedly to keep the United Food and Commercial Workers out of the Tar Heel facility, now wants a quick up-or-down union recognition vote there.

The request, sent to the National Labor Relations Board on June 29, has understandably left the UFCW wary. The NLRB has yet to reply.

An NLRB vote won’t satisfy UFCW any more. The union says Smithfield has created such a climate of fear around Tar Heel that no election would be fair. It wants card-check recognition, company neutrality and independent verification instead.

Smithfield’s demand comes just as the UFCW converted its campaign to organize the 5,500 workers at the plant into a nationwide crusade. It has enlisted clergy, community groups, activists, the rest of the labor movement, and a wide range of allies in its drive to expose the exploitation at the plant.

Rallies for Smithfield workers occurred in late June in seven cities, from Brooklyn to Boston to Washington to Atlanta. They focused on the inhuman working conditions, company tactics to pit African American against Latino workers, human rights violations and outright labor law-breaking in prior organizing drives.

The company’s law-breaking was so pervasive the NLRB threw out two previous elections, in 1994 and 1997, as being illegally tainted, and a federal appellate court in D.C. backed the board. Smithfield decided not to appeal the decision, but rather to call for the third election — quickly — instead. It also said it did nothing wrong in the prior vote.

The court ruling, upholding the NLRB, ordered Smithfield to halt its illegal firings of pro-union workers, post notices saying it would not break labor laws, and reinstate 10 workers with back pay. In their May 2006 ruling on the 1997 vote — backing the NLRB’s decision against Smithfield — the judges said Smithfield “assaulted, intimidated, coerced, spied on, threatened, confiscated union literature, threatened employees with plant closure and job loss, illegally fired union supporters, unlawfully arrested an employee and interfered with their employees’ legal right to choose a union in a free and fair election.”

That’s why UFCW wants card check and neutrality instead, says UFCW campaign director Gene Bruskin.

The situation in Tar Heel contrasts with that in other Smithfield plants where the union represents the workers. UFCW represents just over 40 percent of the firm’s 50,000 workers nationwide. In those plants, UFCW President Joe Hansen noted, relations are good, wages are high and the firm trumpets its cooperation with the UFCW — unlike at Tar Heel.

Bruskin warned UFCW will still stay on guard. “The history is so long, the river is so polluted. The absolute arrogance of the company in thinking they can kick people around for a decade and then come out as champions of democracy and expect people to trust them is a joke.”

— Press Associates Inc.