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Smithfield Packing struggle mixes

Black-Brown unity, environment & workers' rights

Published Apr 26, 2007 10:21 PM

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 rally in New York,
October 2006.
WW photo: Sharon Black

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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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 [email protected] 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.

Fighting environmental racism

This huge Smithfield plant has a major environmental impact on the water and air of eastern North Carolina. Like the hogs that it slaughters, Smithfield keeps trying to throw its weight around. But the state’s environmental justice movement is pushing back hard. The plant pulls 2 million gallons of water per day from the water aquifer and returns about 3 million gallons of waste water into Cape Fear River. It is currently pressuring the state to increase the amount of water it is allowed to use.

Lisa Sorg wrote, “In the 1990s, the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources fined Virginia-based Smithfield $60,000 for environmental violations, including high levels of fecal coliform bacteria and chlorides in the discharge; in 2002, DENR fined the company more than $10,000 for purchasing hogs from banned farms.

“Yet, just as Smithfield has begun to clean up its act, the company is asking DENR to remove essential environmental protections from the Tar Heel plant’s wastewater discharge permit, which is up for renewal. At the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse, Smithfield wants DENR to lift limits on groundwater withdrawal, rescind requirements for environmental management systems—internal controls that monitor environmental performance—and revoke the ban on buying hogs from farms built after Dec. 1, 2002, that still use waste lagoons.” (Weekly Independent)

Smithfield contracts control 90 percent of industrial hog production facilities, 90 percent of which are located in eastern North Carolina, a region that is virtually the most underdeveloped area of the state with the highest percentages of the state’s Black population.

Hogs produce four times the amount of waste that humans do. With 10 million hogs, and waste systems made up simply of clay-lined holes in the ground (euphemistically called lagoons), the fouling of air and water has developed into a major issue being fought by the environmental justice movement in North Carolina.

This movement, primarily based in the African-American community, has been working with North Carolina legislators to come out with a bill that will put a ban on all lagoons and spray fields; put a $50 million fund in place to assist the farmers with getting cleaner technology on the ground to get rid of the old lagoon/spray field system; set aside $10 million to help communities that have been affected by the industry to get their wells repaired; and select an Environmental Justice Commission that includes community members to follow-up on the hog problems.

Rep. Carolyn Justice from Pender County has met with the environmental justice movement, traditional environmentalists and the front-line farmers to craft this bill, H1115. Of all the bills on this issue presented to date, it is the most comprehensive in giving consideration to the community. This is the first time in 10 years that the environmental justice movement, traditional environmental groups and farmers have spoken in one voice.

Black/Brown unity: We must stand together

Smithfield has collaborated with Immigration Customs Enforcement since June through the IMAGE program, where, according to the union, “the company submitted the names of organizers as a tactic to intimidate some workers and get rid of others.” (Washington Post, Jan. 29, 2007)

On Jan. 24, ICE arrested and deported 21 workers, including union activists and leaders of last November’s work stoppage by [email protected] workers. Many other workers have been forced to leave their jobs out of fear of deportation.

Smithfield has used threats of deportation to divide workers and keep the union out, but struggles for immigrant rights have united and empowered Smithfield workers. Last May Day, 5,000 workers, many from Smithfield, marched in nearby Lumberton, N.C. This year workers plan to march again. (http://www.maydaymovement.blogspot.com)

After Smithfield fired several dozen workers for alleged problems with their social security numbers, about a thousand workers walked out for two days in a show of strength and solidarity.

Despite the repeated attacks by the company in collusion with ICE, the workers at Smithfield continue to show their strength. Every Friday, hundreds of workers—many of them [email protected]—wear their yellow union T-shirts to show solidarity with each other and to commit to struggle for justice.

In the past, the company has been able to weaken union building efforts by pitting Black and Brown workers against each other. They have spread lies, rumors and stereotypes to each group about the other. The company had, in the past, held separate meetings for [email protected] and Black workers to divide them and had segregated the plant by type of job.

In the past, groups such as the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) and the Black Workers For Justice have held joint educational programs allowing African-American and [email protected] workers from various workplaces to learn about each other’s community, history and struggles.

At Juneteenth, a Black community celebration of the ending of U.S. slavery, [email protected] workers learned about the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation and current issues in the Black community.

At the same event, Black workers learned about the harmful economic and political effects of NAFTA that drives the movement of [email protected] workers across national borders to find work and feed their families.

Examples of mutual solidarity and respect also include inclusion of FLOC in the Wilson/Down East Labor Council, support and attendance at FLOC union demonstrations by Labor Council members and [email protected] workers’ honoring Dr. King by refusing to come into work Jan. 15.

Shafeah M’Bali is co-editor of Justice Speaks, the publication of the Raleigh-based Black Workers For Justice. Peter Gilbert is a leader of Raleigh FIST—Fight Imperialism, Stand Together—and a former union organizer at Smithfield.