Smithfield workers force company to the table

1,000 rally for union rights and end to immigration raids

WILLIAMSBURG, Va. — A thousand workers and activists demanding unionization of Smithfield’s Tar Heel, N.C., plant shook the walls of the Williamsburg Lodge Conference Center here Aug. 29 as they massed outside the annual meeting of the company’s shareholders, shouting slogans, chanting and blowing whistles.

Company executives inside agreed to a key union demand, the call for the two sides to meet. Meetings were taking place as the World went to press on Sept. 5, according to Leila McDowell, communications director of the United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW). The union has been working for 14 years to organize the world’s largest hog slaughtering plant.

As the crowds roared outside the shareholders meeting, Terry Slaughter, a livestock worker at the Tar Heel plant, presented the hog bosses inside with a petition signed by thousands of workers — a majority at the plant — demanding that the company recognize the union.

“We are tired,” CEO C. Larry Pope told Slaughter and 10 co-workers who presented the petition. He agreed that employees need a union chapter at the plant but said that the company and the union remain at a standstill on how to create it.

McDowell told the World that union negotiators are seeking “an arrangement that insures complete neutrality on the part of the company and defined sanctions if the company violates that neutrality.”

“This could be done in a variety of ways,” she said, “including not only card check but perhaps a community-monitored election. Card check and elections are not enough — our key positions are company neutrality and sanctions.”

“Card check” means the company would recognize the union if a majority of workers sign cards indicating they want union representation. The company says it wants a “secret ballot election” run by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB).

Keith Ludlum, fired 12 years ago for union organizing and reinstated recently with back pay, was at the demonstration here.

Asked to explain why he doesn’t want to go through another NLRB election, Ludlum told the World, “That was done in ’94 and ’97. Both times it was a farce. People were harassed, beaten up and fired. Supervisors dressed up as employees and were stuffing ballot boxes. They even shut off the lights and evacuated the building during the election.”

High injury rates at the plant are fueling support for the union. Seven hundred serious injuries were reported in the year 2006 alone. They included cuts, lacerations, fractured wrists, broken bones and amputations.

Immigration raids continue to be used to intimidate union supporters. Between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. on Aug. 23, federal agents raided homes in four North Carolina counties and entered the Tar Heel plant itself, arresting a total of 28 Smithfield workers, mainly from Mexico.

Organizers said the raids motivated even more people to turn out for the march. Melody Drnach, a National Organization for Women vice president from Washington, D.C., was at the demonstration. She deplored how “women are gathered up in the middle of the night, separated from their families and jailed. This action by the government, the shareholders and the management of Smithfield is despicable.”

Before the march the crowds packed the First Baptist Church, where they assembled. They cheered when it was announced that only a week earlier 70 stores in Boston had pulled Smithfield products from their shelves.

As they exited the church, they took posters, whistles and copies of chants distributed by Jobs with Justice and the Justice at Smithfield Campaign.

A handmade sign carried through the winding streets of the colonial town read, “When you see me, you see thousands in my union behind me.”

The chants and the whistles drew the attention of locals, students and tourists. One student, Bobby Muller, was moved to join the parade and spoke in support at the rally afterward.

Another speaker, Vanessa Reeves, worked for years on the plant’s kill floor, removing the spinal cords from hogs. “As the hogs come down the line, they bump up against you and sometimes fall on you,” she said.

“That’s what happened to me on May 29,” she said. “I went to the ER. I had a miscarriage. I lost my baby in the hospital, and they fired me for being off the job.”

“The only way these people will get help is to get them a union,” said Jim Lowther, president of UFCW Local 400.

John Wojcik contributed to this story.