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
Smithfield rally in New York,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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