LOS ANGELES — On June 10 Smithfield Foods announced the closure of its Farmer John plant near here in Vernon, which slaughters almost 2 million hogs a year. Smithfield is owned by Hong Kong-based WH Group Ltd., the largest pork company in the world.
Talks with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 770 over a new contract for the nearly 2,000 workers at the plant had been scheduled to start two days earlier. Instead, Smithfield bosses announced they were closing the plant next February, and that there would be no new contract.
Smithfield also announced it would slash hog purchases from its giant farm in Utah and close farms in Arizona and California. The company said it is “taking these steps due to the escalating cost of doing business in California,” on top of rising inflation, supply chain issues and the passage of Proposition 12.
This proposition, which imposes more expansive space requirements for hogs, was approved by California voters in 2018 and bans the sale of pork in the state if producers’ confinement standards don’t meet with these new requirements. The American Farm Bureau Federation and National Pork Producers Council have filed a challenge with the U.S. Supreme Court against the constitutionality of the proposition. The big pork monopolies claim it would raise the cost of pork by 15%.
Smithfield’s Circle Four Farms in Milford, Utah, which spreads over 35 miles, is a concentrated animal feeding operation where animals are raised in confined situations. This farm turns out over 1.2 million hogs every year. Officials in Beaver County, where Milford is located, estimate the closure of Farmer John will result in the loss of 250 jobs in a county of 6,500. Smithfield also has contracts for hogs with farmers in Arizona, Utah and California.
The decision by Smithfield is a blow to workers, farmers and farmworkers in California, Utah and Arizona. Thousands will lose their jobs.
This reporter was part of a recent team of Militant supporters that talked to workers at the Vernon plant gate. “This is all about corporate greed,” Marcus Brown told us. “The system needs to be fixed all the way down.”
Kevin Nunez, 20, has worked at the plant for two years. “I got a job here because no one else would hire me without any work experience. The closing won’t affect me as much as older workers because I’ve just been here a short time,” he said. “I’m young and can find another job, especially now since I have work experience. It will be harder for older workers to find new jobs.” Farmer John is well known in the Los Angeles working class as a place where workers can start out, from recent immigrants to workers just getting out of prison to youth looking for their first job.
Vernon built by the bosses
Vernon is a “city” with a total population of 222. Near downtown Los Angeles, it is known for its smelly and polluting industries that are surrounded by working-class neighborhoods. Farmer John was established by the Clougherty family as Clougherty Packing in 1931, and its plant here is one of the oldest in the industry, built in the 1950s. In addition to its brand name Farmer John products, it was known for producing Dodger Dogs, sold at baseball games. It lost that contract at the end of the 2019 season.
Workers at Farmer John fought a bitter strike in the 1980s against concessions demanded by Clougherty Packing, part of a series of fights by packinghouse workers across the country against growing boss attacks on wages, line speed, safety and workers’ dignity.
The strike was defeated, and Clougherty imposed lower wages and worse conditions on the workers. While the union continued to have a contract, payroll deduction of dues and the presence of the union on the shop floor were eliminated. Union membership dwindled to a handful.
Workers fought to rebuild the union as the plant was purchased by Hormel in 2005, then Smithfield in 2015. In recent contracts, the union has won back dues checkoff and an increased presence for stewards on the shop floor.
Road forward for packing workers
After the bosses announced the plant closing, UFCW Local 770 President John Grant issued a statement. “A fair agreement that compensates their workers until next year has been reached, and we hope that another operator will take advantage of the highly trained and stable workforce that makes the Farmer John plant a productive and profitable part of Vernon’s packing infrastructure,” it said.
Workers report that they have received a pay increase of more than $4 an hour and if they agree to stay until the plant is shuttered next February, Smithfield says they will receive severance pay of $7,500, as well as $500 for each year of seniority.
“The labor movement should take a fighting stance against this new assault by the packing bosses,” Eleanor García, Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Senate from California, told workers outside the plant July 7. “We need to stand together to fight to defend our brothers and sisters, not try to smooth the way for the bosses to close the plant.
“The labor movement should demand Smithfield open its books to inspection by a committee of workers and farmers to see the real facts behind the decision to close Farmer John,” she said. “We should organize a delegation of union members to meet with workers and farmers in Utah to get the facts on the impact of the closure there. A committee of workers and farmers should examine the conditions under which hogs are raised to determine humane conditions. Any necessary costs for adjustments should be taken from the profits of Smithfield and other packers, not off the backs of workers, farmers or consumers.
“If the bosses can’t run the plant, we demand the government take it over, and we’ll run it under workers control.
“Workers need to forge an alliance with working farmers — wage slaves and debt slaves both exploited by the capitalists — to fight together against our oppression,” García said. “We need to say, ‘No to farm foreclosures!’ Nationalize the land, starting with large capitalist farms like those Smithfield runs, and turn them over to those who work there.”