North Carolina Smithfield workers win against the odds

TAR HEEL, N.C. — Close to 1,000 Smithfield Packing Co. workers walked off the job here Nov. 16 to protest illegal firings, and they won against big odds.

It was a truly remarkable action by nonunion workers, many undocumented, in a rural area, in a state with a “right-to-work” (for less) law, with one of the most notorious anti-union environments in the country.

And it was at a company that illegally fired union supporters in an organizing drive in 1994 and then harassed and beat up union supporters in another attempted union drive in 1997.

Smithfield’s Tar Heel complex is the largest hog processing plant in the world.

Eduardo Pena, a leader of the Eastern North Carolina Workers Center and an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), has been working with the Smithfield workers. He said that in many ways the workers won the minute they walked out.

The walkout was sparked when Smithfield fired as many as 75 workers because they had received “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration (SSA). “No-match” letters tell the company that an employee’s Social Security number does not match the name or some other information on record. Smithfield said they didn’t want to fire anyone but were forced to. But the SSA specifically states that these letters cannot be used to fire workers.

Keith Ludlum, who works in the plant’s livestock department, was fired in the 1994 union drive. Recently reinstated by a National Labor Relations Board ruling, he returned to work at Smithfield. He was one of those who walked out Nov. 16. The letters were just the spark, he said.

There is a tremendous backlog of resentment and frustration on the part of all the workers over a wide range of issues from health and safety violations to speed-up and working conditions, Ludlum said. “The joke in the plant is that the hogs have more rights than the workers do. They have the protection of the USDA and we have none without the union.”

He noted that those who walked out were not only Latinos but also included many African American and white workers. Workers said that young Latino women played a special role in organizing and leading the walkout.

Robert Dixon, who also works in the livestock department, told the World that workers in the plant, even those afraid to come out, were fully supporting the walkout. The company is “so heartless and mean that we all have stories of brutality and injustice,” he said.

Dixon’s fiancée had gotten very sick and he had to drive her back and forth to the doctor. The company gave him disciplinary points against his record for every time he had to leave work early or come in late. Smithfield said she was only a fiancée and not really a family member. Then, when she died from her illness, they gave him points for attending her funeral. “We all support the Latinos,” he said, “and we all have our own reasons for wanting a union here.”

The UFCW is quick to point out that the walkout was led by workers on the shop floor, not union organizers. “We are here to support them in any way we can,” said Gene Bruskin, UFCW director of organizing, “but they are doing the planning and making all the decisions.”

Meanwhile, a worker who had heard about the walkout on the news, and who had been fired, as were five others, from a Smithfield distribution center in Clayton, N.C., drove to Tar Heel to join the walkout. He reported to great cheering that this distribution center normally got about 40 trucks of pork a day from the Tar Heel plant and on the day of the walkout had only gotten three. Supporters, still in the plant, said production was down to one line running much slower than usual.

The next evening, Nov. 17, things got even tenser. The crowd in the parking lot swelled as second shift workers joined in and expectations rose. It was a long day, as most of the workers who walked out had been in the parking lot since 5 a.m. Finally at around 8:30 p.m. a great uproar rang out from in front of the plant. The workers had won.

Smithfield agreed to increase the time allowed for employees to respond to “no-match” letters. Employees who had been fired for failure to resolve Social Security issues can return to work while the issues are sorted out. There is to be no more firing. Smithfield’s Human Resources Department will designate a staff member to help process “no-match” Social Security issues and respond to questions.

No disciplinary actions of any kind will be taken against those employees who participated in the walkout. And most important of all, Smithfield agreed to meet with a 14-member committee elected by the workers on the basis of one per department from both shifts to deal with concerns raised by the workers.

A young Latino worker leaving the plant summed it up nicely: “We won and we’ll keep on winning until we get the union.”

Here’s a way you can help fight for justice at Smithfield during the holiday season:

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