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Meatpacking workers fight for justice

Unity is key in Smithfield organizing

Published Oct 13, 2006 10:06 PM

Anyone who believes that sweatshop conditions and exploitation are something reserved only for poorer countries in “free economic zones,” and are a thing of the past in the United States, is badly mistaken. The brutal conditions, poverty-level wages and crippling injuries of the Smithfield packing workers in Tar Heel, N.C., quickly dispel this myth.

UFCW members at rally that closed the New York
Smithfield office for the day.
WW photos: Sharon Black

The United Food and Commercial Workers union and workers from the Tar Heel plant came to New York Sept. 30 to protest in front of Smithfield’s corporate offices at 49th Street and Park Avenue. Some 500 people—representing thousands of others who signed up online to be part of a “virtual march”—launched a campaign to demand that Smithfield end injustice and allow the workers to unionize.

The Smithfield Packing plant hires close to 6,000 workers and slaughters 8 million hogs per year in the tiny town of Tar Heel. It is the world’s largest hog processing plant. In 1998, North Carolina became the second-largest hog producer in the United States. Smithfield commands almost 25 percent of the nationwide hog market.

Where tobacco and sweet potatoes were once the main crops and industry, now hog growing dominates. At the Smithfield plant, workers cut, pack and ship more than 25,000 hogs a day.

Teresa Gutierrez with Agueda Arias
of UFCW Local 888.

The conditions in this plant are as horrendous as those described by Upton Sinclair in his 1906 novel “The Jungle.”

Anyone who has worked on an assembly line knows firsthand how a constantly speeding line destroys the body and numbs the mind. The mantra of the bosses is always, “Faster, faster, get the product out.”

Those who work in meatpacking and food processing plants also have to endure freezing temperatures. Cuts, amputations, skin disease and permanent arm and shoulder damage are everyday occurrences. Death is always close.

On the morning of Nov. 20, 2003, 25-year-old Glen Birdsong was working alone cleaning a holding tank near a loading dock at the Smithfield plant. The tank held a substance mixed with sodium bisulfite intended for use as a clotting medicine by-product.

The hose Birdsong was using got caught in the tank. He climbed down a ladder to free it. Co-workers later found him at the bottom of the ladder, dead.

“They didn’t tell him about the dangers and they didn’t give him a safety belt to get pulled out of there in case he fell in,” co-workers told Human Rights Watch.

Injured workers are frequently threatened with losing their jobs when they report injuries, so many say the injury occurred at home or off the job.

Smithfield tries to divide workers

North Carolina has seen the most dramatic increase in the number of immigrant workers of any state. In 2000, the number increased by 274 percent, from 115,000 to 430,000; it is more than 500,000 today. An estimated half of the plant’s workers are now [email protected] and 40 percent are African Americans.

The changing demographics are, of course, not lost on Smithfield’s bosses, who have been waging a campaign of racism to divide the workers. Ed Morrison, an African American worker, said: “They try to divide people by race. They threaten the immigrants and try to turn Blacks against the Mexicans. It’s all to keep people from standing together for their rights.”

Smithfield Packing, according to testimony before the National Labor Relations Board, held special one-on-one meetings with Mexican workers during an earlier attempt to unionize the company. Company representatives implied that immigrant workers would be fired or deported.

The company formed its own special police agency, which under North Carolina law can make arrests both on and off company property. Black workers were threatened, beaten and arrested. A company manager told a union representative: “I want to make sure you’re there for a real ass-whipping. We’re going to beat you ... and we’ve got something special in mind for you.” (www.smithfieldjustice.com)

The UFCW and the workers at Smithfield are defying all this. A campaign is being waged to win a union and beat back much of this abuse. All workers everywhere should come to the defense of the Smithfield workers, as “an injury to one is an injury to all.”

Sharon Black is a former food processing and packing worker. She was an elected representative of the UFCW for 26 years and was also part of the Amalgamated Meatcutters Association before it merged.