Smithfield Packing struggle mixes Black-Brown unity, environment & workers’ rights
By Shafeah M’Bal and Peter Gilbert
Apr 27, 2007, 08:23
Smithfield Packing is a glaring example of how capitalism creates all kinds of victims of oppression, who when they take a broader view, can push the strategic weak point of the system and open a way for many others to win a victory.
Smithfield has spawned three different movements: one demanding the right of workers to organize a union and to collectively bargain with the company; another resisting environmental poisoning, and a third composed of immigrant workers and their allies fighting repression based on their nationality status.
Smithfield Packing is the second largest meat packing company in the U.S. and runs the world’s largest pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C. Smithfield workers, primarily Latin and African-American, butcher and pack 176,000 hogs per week under harsh health and safety working conditions. These workers have been fighting to establish a trade union for 14 years.
The company has increased its level of viciousness to fend off workers’ efforts. It has played Mexican and Black workers against each other, women workers against men and young versus old. It has attempted to intimidate Latin workers by threatening to have the government deport them.
Dirt, danger and discrimination
While unionized in most locations outside of North Carolina, in this southern state Smithfield has fought vigorously to prevent its employees from forming a union. Elections to unionize the plant held in 1994 and in 1997 were initially lost. But a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge made a landmark decision overturning the results. The decision charged Smithfield with multiple violations of federal labor law, violations that destroyed the conditions for a free and fair election.
Since the plant opened, Smithfield workers have fought for the right to organize a union and to collectively bargain in the face of criminal and sometimes violent repression by the company, at times with the state’s collusion.
In addition to the challenges to organizing any union in the U.S. South, especially with a very multinational workforce of mostly African-American and Latin@ workers, workers have faced spies, deportation and plant-closing threats, false arrests, police attacks and racist hate speech.
In 2006, after having been found guilty of a long list of illegal anti-union policies in the previous union election, Smithfield is now calling for a new election. Having experienced the threats, illegal firings and physical attacks at the previous election, workers are instead demanding full recognition of the union immediately.
As one worker, Ronnie Simmons, put it: “If the company held another election, they would just intimidate and violate our rights again and then we’d have to wait another ten years for it to wind its way through the courts. We need help now and we need our voices to be heard and respected now. We’ve been fighting for far too long. Our workers want a union now. It’s long overdue.”
The Employee Free Choice Act, which the U.S. Senate will debate next week, would allow all workers to form a union without having to be subjected to undemocratic elections where, like at Smithfield, workers are subject to attack and harassment by management. Some senators have threatened to filibuster to prevent a vote, and Bush has promised a veto.
To force the company to recognize the union, workers are building a more permanent movement rather than following traditional union strategies. Workers are simultaneously building community and political pressure on the company, while fighting for winnable gains inside the plant.
On Jan. 15, when workers stayed out of work to honor Dr. Martin Luther King and demand the holiday off, production dropped by 9,000 hogs. Last November, in response to firings of immigrant workers, hundreds of workers walked out for two days, and won concessions from the company including the rehiring of the fired workers.
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