For more than a decade, workers at this plant have been involved in efforts to organize into the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union. The facility employs 5,000 workers and slaughters up to 32,000 hogs a day.
Leading up to the protest, workers told the Militant, Smithfield had sent notices, known as no-match letters, to hundreds of employees saying their names and Social Security numbers did not match federal records. Workers were given 14 days to resolve the discrepancy. Firings began as the deadline came due.
On the Monday before the protest, the company started pulling people into the office, a packing line worker said in an interview. They were firing people on the spot. Every day it was more. On Thursday morning, suddenly we noticed that hardly any boxes were coming down the line. On the radios they were shouting 'They're walking off the line!' The supervisors were franticthey couldnt believe it.
When I went on break, the parking lot was really crowded with people. It was truly a beautiful thing the way they united, said the worker, a Black woman in her early 20s. Like other workers interviewed, she asked that her name not be used because right now were fighting for the union.
Roberto, a Mexican-born worker, said he was working on the kill floor when the protest started. "Nothing was coming down the line, so I asked around what was going on. The guys who unload the trucks said, 'We're not working, we're walking out.' So I walked out too," he said.
Hundreds of workers gathered outside the plant, chanting in Spanish ¡Queremos justicia! (We want justice!) and ¡Sí se puede! (Yes we can!) Workers leading the walkout issued a statement demanding No retaliation now or in the future for any worker participating in the fight for justice at Smithfield, including but not limited to points, demotion, or termination. It also called for an end to the unjust firing of Smithfield workers and the timely rehire of all workers who have been unfairly terminated.
Consuelo, a meat cutter on the night shift, was at home when the walkout began. On hearing the news she joined the protest. She said in an interview that she was glad to see UFCW organizers outside the plant because they say they will support us.
When the afternoon shift arrived, several hundred more joined the protest instead of going into work. While the majority of those refusing to work were Latin American immigrants, some Black and other U.S.-born workers participated as well.
The following day, November 17, hundreds of workers protested again outside the plant. By the end of the day, Smithfield agreed to discuss the workers grievances with representatives of the Catholic Church. Workers returned to the job Saturday.
According to a November 18 UFCW press release, the company agreed to increase the time allowed for employees to respond to no match letters, that employees who have been laid off for failure to resolve Social Security issues may return to work while they sort out these issues, and that no disciplinary actions of any kind will be taken against those employees who participated in the walkout.
Smithfield plant manager Larry Johnson agreed to meet November 21 with a delegation elected by the workers.
The press release reported that the North Carolina NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other religious and civil rights groups backed the workers demands.
Also fueling the anger of workers is the high injury rate due to job conditions and the abusive treatment by bosses. These issues have been at the heart of an ongoing campaign by the UFCW to organize the Tar Heel plant.
Keith Ludlum, a union supporter who herds hogs off the truck and to the kill floor, told The Robesonian, a local daily, that there is no way an employee can [work] here very long without receiving permanent damage to their body and their joints."
Workers report that a common cause of injury is using dull knives. Gene Bruskin, UFCW director of the Smithfield Justice campaign, told the press that in August workers circulated a petition in Spanish asking to be issued a second knife.
María, a 10-year veteran in the plant, told the Militant a supervisor had called her lazy and tried to get her fired. But Im a hard worker, said María, who successfully challenged the victimization attempt. Then the boss brought a pallet over with 10 boxes of meat that wasnt cut right and said it was my fault and I would have to pay for it. In the end, I didnt have to pay for the meat, but she kicked me out of the department. In my new job I only got 28 hours, which isnt enough, because I have a young son to feed.
Workers efforts to organize the Tar Heel plant go back more than a decade. Union elections were held in both 1994 and 1997 amid widespread company harassment and intimidation, including beatings and arrests of union supporters. Although the UFCW lost both times, a federal appeals court ruling this year stated that Smithfield repeatedly broke the law during the two elections.
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On the Picket Line
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