The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 35           October 13, 2003  
Union:‘Court ruling won’t stop
fight for justice at Smithfield’
TAR HEEL, North Carolina—On July 30 a federal court of appeals overturned an earlier ruling in a civil rights lawsuit won by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) against Smithfield Foods for violation of workers’ rights during the 1997 union election vote. The April 2002 decision by a jury in federal district court in Raleigh, North Carolina, had ordered Smithfield to pay union supporters $750,000 for damages.

In December 2000 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) found that Smithfield waged a systematic, illegal campaign to suppress workers’ right to join a union at the Tar Heel plant during two separate campaigns in 1994 and 1997. The union lost both times.

In a 400-page ruling, the NLRB judge found that Smithfield managers conspired with the local sheriff’s department to physically intimidate and beat union supporters. Workers were subjected to meetings that they were required to attend at which the company threatened them for supporting the union. Latino workers were told the INS would raid the plant if they voted for the union.

The labor board also found Smithfield guilty of illegally firing seven workers during the 1994 campaign and four more in 1997. The NLRB ordered the company to allow the UFCW free access to the workers in the plant.

“It’s unfortunate that a legal technicality let Smithfield get out from under the monetary judgment,” said Marc Perrone, UFCW vice president and director of the union’s organizing efforts, in an August 21 press release. The “technicality” he was referring to was that after being arrested by the cops the plaintiffs—a union organizer and a former worker in the plant—were required to sign a release not to take legal action against the company or police as a condition for being freed. On that basis, the appeals court ruled that the case for damages on charges of civil rights violations should not have been heard.

“But justice at Smithfield isn’t about a monetary ruling,” Perrone continued. “Or an appeals court ruling. Justice at Smithfield is up to North Carolina communities, and communities across the country, standing together with Smithfield workers and demanding the company respect workers and obey the law. Their day of reckoning will come.”

The union launched a labor rights campaign last June in Atlanta, Georgia, called “Witness: Justice @ Smithfield.” The union appealed for support in protesting “human rights abuses at Smithfield’s plant in Tar Heel,” and presented a video documenting the 10-year effort to organize a union at the plant. The video includes interviews with workers who had been the target of abuses by the company and shows how the company promotes divisions between Black and Latino workers.

The 975,000 square-foot plant located in Bladen County, North Carolina, employs 6,000 men and women, 60 percent of whom are Latino. Most other workers are Black. Smithfield brags that its facility at Tar Heel is the world’s largest pork slaughterhouse, killing 32,000 hogs daily. The plant also has an extremely high turnover rate, and its injury rate is among the highest in the nation, the UFCW web site states. The company reported record profits of nearly $200 million and sales of more than $7 billion in 2002.

Many workers leave Smithfield because they consider it a dangerous place to work. “I worked there six months and injured my wrists,” a Latino worker, who asked not to be identified by name, told Militant reporters. “But they make sure that you pass all the tests on dexterity with your hands. They make sure that everything is perfect, to destroy them.” Now he works at a hog farm “run by Smithfield, of course,” he said. Smithfield raises 11.6 million hogs per year. About 90 percent of hog farmers in North Carolina sell directly to the company.

A Black worker, who also preferred not to give her name, said that three years ago she worked at Smithfield for six months. “I saw how the boss made a Hispanic worker keep working after he cut his hand. I can’t take that kind of abuse against workers. I decided to leave that job.”

Some of the workers these reporters talked to expressed their support for getting a union in the plant. A worker with two years in the slaughterhouse, who asked that only his first name, Ricardo, be used, said he is for the union “because we can defend ourselves better against company abuses.”

Another worker said she had signed a union card and would vote for the union again because the company “was pushing us around for too long.”

Hilda Cuzco and Rachele Fruit are UFCW members in Philadelphia and Tampa, Florida, respectively.  
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