Smithfield workers join King Day march
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4,000 at N. Carolina plant demand day off
Hundred s take off work, attend Fayetteville action
Militant /Eddie Beck
Hundreds of meat packers from the Smithfield pork slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, took off work January 15 to demand the company recognize the Martin Luther King holiday. Some marched with others in nearby Fayetteville on the occasion (above).
BY SETH DELLINGER
FAYETTEVILLE, North Carolina, January 15Hundreds of workers didnt show up for work and dozens left their jobs early today at Smithfields giant hog slaughterhouse near here in Tar Heel, North Carolina, to press their demand that the company recognize Martin Luther King Day as a holiday.
Four days earlier, forklift driver Leonard Walker delivered petitions signed by 4,000 of the 5,000 workers at Tar Heel to plant manager Larry Johnson asking for the holiday off with pay, reported the Fayetteville Observer.
Johnson refused to accept the petitions, claiming that workers had previously voted to work that day when presented with the choice between either taking that day off or Easter.
Later this morning some of the Smithfield workers, who are fighting for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union to be recognized at the plant, participated in a King Day service at the First Baptist Church here. Afterwards, several hundred marched to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park for an unveiling of a statue of King.
We should be given Martin Luther King Day off automatically and we should get paid, Eugene Rogers, a kill floor worker at Smithfield, told the Militant at the King Day service.
The bosses said workers who did not come in would not be paid and might face other disciplinary action. However, they later dropped their threat to discipline those who missed work that day.
Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman told the Fayetteville Observer that 300 workers were absent. About the same number skipped work for last years King Day, he said. The union said that 500 workers stayed off the job.
At the King Day service, Frances Rogers told the Militant that she walked out after her first break. Maybe Ill get a half a point, but I shouldnt get any points because this is a national holiday, she said. Rogers reported that about 20 of the 50 workers in her department, where meat is removed from the hogs heads, did not come in, slowing down production.
Not enough people took a stand. But it is a step forward, Rogers told the Observer.
Were trying to get a union, and Im for it 100 percent, said Johnny Davis, a kill floor worker with eight years in the plant. Davis spoke to the overflow crowd of 500, mostly African Americans, who packed the pews of the church. The Smithfield bosses try to scare us a lot, he said, but were not scared.
About 1,000 workers, mostly immigrants from Latin America, walked out of the plant last November after the company fired several dozen workers it claimed were working with false immigration papers. The walkout ended when the company announced it would not penalize those who joined it, reinstate employees who had been fired, and give workers more time to clarify their immigration status.
While many of those who took the day off or left work early today were Black, a number of Latino workers joined in.
Rafael Hernández, 48, a cut floor worker with more than nine years at the Tar Heel plant, said the demand for recognition of the King holiday was an opportunity to build more unity among workers in the plant. I came to support my African American coworkers on their day, Hernández said. This is important because Martin Luther King fought for workers rights.
One of the signs carried at the march following the church service read, Workers united, never divided.
The fight for a federal holiday honoring the civil rights leader was won and first observed 18 years after Martin Luther King was gunned down while in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1968 to support a sanitation workers strike. Throughout that time marches and commemorations were organized in Black communities across the country to press for the holiday. These actions were also part of the broader fight for Black rights, and other struggles by workers for unions and better working conditionsa tradition that continues to this day.
The campaign for the holiday was galvanized by Stevie Wonders 1980 song Happy Birthday, a tribute to King. The following year Wonder led a march on Washington of 100,000 and delivered petitions signed by 6 million people demanding the holiday. President Ronald Reagan, who had opposed the holiday, signed it into law on Nov. 2, 1983, after Congress approved the King Day bill.
Janice Lynn and Glova Scott contributed to this article.
'Workers united, never divided'