Smithfield workers vote in union
Published Dec 17, 2008 4:00 PM
Workers at the world’s largest packinghouse, a hog processing facility in
Tar Heel, N.C., won their 15-year struggle to organize this Smithfield plant.
They voted 2,041-1,879 to certify the United Food and Commercial Workers in the
NLRB election conducted over Dec. 10-11. This was the third election held at
the plant since it opened in 1992. The NLRB contested the two others, held in
1994 and 1997, finding that Smithfield carried out illegal intimidation and
attacks on workers, and these were finally thrown out.
The bargaining unit was over 4,600 workers, of whom over 4,000 voted in the
two-day election. The plant has a majority of about 3,300 African-American
workers, and has about 1,300 Latina/o workers. There are a few Native American
and white workers. The plant was majority of Latin American origin until last
year, when many workers were scared away as a result of Immigration and Customs
In 2006 Smithfield finally lost their last appeal from the 1997 election in a
circuit court, and asked for a new election. The workers demanded that the
company recognize the union, having shown how difficult a fair election would
be. For two years workers and community supporters around the U.S. picketed
stores carrying Smithfield products and demanded that the Company respect the
Smithfield workers’ basic rights. In October 2007 the company responded
by refusing to negotiate and by trying to intimidate the union and their
supporters with a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act)
lawsuit, claiming that workers exercising their basic rights and using some of
their power, amounted to extortion.
On Oct. 27, the union and the company agreed to a new election in exchange for
Smithfield dropping its lawsuit. Despite the fact that the previous elections
were thrown out because of the company’s actions, the workers won major
concessions that ensured a fair election. Under the terms of the agreement,
union organizers were allowed access to the plant itself, to talk to workers
and distribute literature in the cafeteria and break rooms.
This was the first time in the 15-year struggle to organize the plant that
organizers had an opportunity to talk to workers on a more equal footing with
the bosses. The agreement required the company to discontinue its attacks on
the union. Beginning at the start of November, over a hundred organizers came
to Tar Heel, not just from the UFCW, but also from SEIU and other unions in the
Change to Win coalition.
Throughout the final days of the campaign, workers took inspiration from
President-elect Obama’s historic victory. As one Smithfield worker
stated, “We changed the White House. We can change the Hog-House.”
The victorious union election also came on the heels of the Republic
workers’ victory in Chicago, another inspiration to the Smithfield
The workers now have a year where the company must negotiate with them, but the
company is not required by law to sign a contract. Smithfield and the UFCW do
have contracts at 26 other plants outside North Carolina. How good this
contract will be depends on the workers’ continued unity and militancy,
and will require continued support and solidarity from workers and communities
around the U.S.
Gilbert is a former UFCW organizer.
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