Still refusing to talk, hog boss sues union

On Oct. 15 management at Smithfield’s Tar Heel, N.C., plant broke off negotiations with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and a day later filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the union which includes within it petitions to silence community, religious and other groups that have been supporting the 14-year struggle to unionize the plant.

The union now sees the talks, agreed to by Smithfield, as having been nothing more than a ploy by the company to gain time to launch yet another attack against its workers and the UFCW.

At an Aug. 29 stockholder’s meeting in Williamsburg, Va., the hog bosses were presented with petitions signed by thousands of Tar Heel workers, demanding that the company recognize the union. As that meeting took place, a thousand workers and activists gathered outside and chanted and blew whistles in support of the demand to unionize, and the company agreed to the talks.

The union says that as soon as the talks began, the company renewed its policy of lobbying workers to vote against union representation. The union had insisted, during the talks, that the company should remain neutral.

“The decision about union or no union is for the workers to make, not for the company to make,” said Leila McDowell, communications director of the UFCW. “The workers don’t have a say in determining corporate policy; the company should not have a say in determining workers’ choices. They must remain neutral.”

Gene Bruskin, who oversees the union’s efforts to organize Smithfield workers, is named as a defendant in the lawsuit. Bruskin said, “The timing of the lawsuit against the union shows the company never had any intention of working with the union.”

“The lawsuit is a hundred pages,” he said. “It was worked on for weeks and weeks, and it shows the entire conversation with us was done in bad faith.”

The company lawsuit claims that the union has engaged in a “public smear campaign” that included “frivolous regulatory investigations and providing false statements to analysts aimed at depressing the company’s stock prices.”

Another part of the lawsuit says, “The union conspired to force the company to recognize it as the exclusive bargaining representative of hourly employees … regardless of the degree of actual employee support for such representation, by injuring Smithfield economically until Smithfield either agreed to defendant’s demands or was run out of business.”

The union, before the talks broke down, rejected the company demand that it be allowed to lobby against the union. Earlier this year, Smithfield was forced by the National Labor Relations Board to pay $1.1 million in back wages, plus interest, to pro-union employees it fired during union elections in 1993 and 1997.

The company points to those elections as “proof” that its workers don’t want a union. In both cases, workers lost the right to union representation by very narrow margins.

Keith Ludlum, a Tar Heel worker fired 12 years ago for union organizing and reinstated recently with back pay, described those elections to the World on May 29. “Both times it was a farce,” he said. “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.”

The company has benefited from immigration raids that intimidate union supporters. On Aug. 23, in the latest series of raids, federal agents swept through four North Carolina counties and entered the Tar Heel plant itself, arresting a total of 28 Smithfield workers, mainly from Mexico.

The company lawsuit also targets community and religious groups that have advocated on behalf of Smithfield workers. It asks the federal court to prevent groups from petitioning state and national government bodies with grievances against Smithfield and it asks the court to halt appeals by these groups to the public for support. The lawsuit also asks the court to stop dissemination of anti-Smithfield campaign activities by the groups to the public.

“The Smithfield lawsuit is an assault on fundamental American values,” Bruskin said. “It ultimately seeks to ensure that only the voices of the powerful are heard and that corporate conduct is privileged and beyond reproach.”

“The union will continue to work with community and religious leaders and elected officials in this cause,” McDowell said. “The UFCW will not be bullied by a baseless lawsuit, and we will continue to struggle for justice at Smithfield.”