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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 Enforcement raids.

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 workers.

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.