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Vol. 73/No. 27      July 20, 2009

N. Carolina meat packers
win first union pact
(front page)
WASHINGTON—Workers at the giant Smithfield pork slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, voted to accept the first contract between their union, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1208 and the company. Eighty-four percent of the workers who participated in the two-day vote, June 30 and July 1, approved the pact.

“We really did accomplish something with this union,” Mattie Fulcher, who has worked 10 years at the plant, told the News & Observer. “We might not have gotten the raise that we wanted, but that will come in time. This is our first contract, and it is a start.”

Smithfield opened the plant in 1992. The union lost representation elections in 1994 and 1997 amid company intimidation, including beatings and arrests of union supporters, spying on union activists, confiscation of union materials, and harassment by the company’s in-plant police force. A federal court threw out the results of both elections in 2006.

Smithfield agreed in 2007 to pay $1.1 million in back wages plus interest to 10 workers fired for union activity. The company then launched a lawsuit against the union, claiming racketeering. The company dropped the suit when the UFCW agreed to end its national “Justice at Smithfield” campaign. Both sides agreed to hold a third union election in December 2008. Many workers campaigned for the union, including inside the plant, this time winning union recognition by a vote of 2,041 to 1,879.

Effective July 1, the contract gives workers a 40 cents an hour wage increase each of the first three years, 30 cents an hour in the fourth year, and time-and-a-half pay for working holidays. A Smithfield spokesperson reported that starting pay at the plant is about $10 an hour and the average pay is about $11.60 an hour.

According to the News & Observer, workers will get 26 hours of unpaid sick time per year with no disciplinary points. Employees will receive a third week of vacation after 10 years, down from the previous 13 years. The contract includes a guarantee of 30 hours of work a week in the first year and 32 hours thereafter.

The cost of health insurance will increase by as much as $4 a week this year then remains steady. Job openings will be filled by seniority. Workers will have access to union representatives in the plant at all times, and get three paid days of funeral leave for death of an immediate family member.

A press release from the UFCW explains the contract also includes protection of the existing pension plan, a continued joint worker/management safety committee, safety training, and a system to resolve workplace issues.

The plant is the largest pork processing plant in the world. About 4,650 workers slaughter and process about 32,000 hogs a day.

Last year, North Carolina had the lowest rate of union membership of any state at 3.5 percent, compared to 12.4 percent nationally. Official joblessness in the state surged in May to 11.1 percent, its highest rate in three decades.

Smithfield reported last month that it lost $190.3 million in the fiscal year that ended May 3, compared with a profit of $129 million the previous year. The company announced in February that it will close six plants in six states by year’s end, resulting in 1,800 workers losing their jobs.
Related articles:
Immigrant workers demand jobs back
Company threatens plant closure after union victory
Legalize all immigrants now!  
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