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Demand Justice for Smithfield Workers

By Kosta Harlan

Workers on meatpacking line.

Asheville, NC – “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” Over 40 students with the Justice at Smithfield campaign began their countrywide tour here with a spirited picket of a local Ingles supermarket. Ingles stocks Smithfield products from the notorious Smithfield hog processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina. The Justice at Smithfield campaign will visit several major cities in the United States in a tour to raise awareness and build solidarity between trade unions, community organizers, student activists, and the Smithfield Tar Heel plant workers.

The Smithfield plant in Tar Heel is the largest hog processing plant in the world. 32,000 hogs are slaughtered per day. Fast line speeds at the plant mean that 33 hogs are killed per minute. As a result, the 6000 low-wage workers at the Tar Heel plant are forced to labor under poor conditions and at unsafe speeds, leading to scores of injuries and even death. Smithfield has underreported injuries at the Tar Heel plant in the past, and the company has denied workers’ compensation when injury claims are filed.

Under such conditions, it is no surprise that the Tar Heel plant has been the site of a pitched battle to organize a union. Workers at the plant first contacted the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in 1994. A union election was held that year, but the campaign was marked by surveillance, harassment, intimidation and violence. In 1997, workers at Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant held another election, which lost by a narrow margin after the company used illegal union-busting tactics to intimidate workers. Danny Priest, Chief of Police at Smithfield, was later found guilty of violations of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 for arresting and beating union activists after the election.

Key to Smithfield’s success in defeating the union was their policy of dividing the workers by nationality. Smithfield has reportedly long practiced a policy of placing Black, Latino and white workers into separate stations inside the plant. During the union drive, UFCW organizers and workers vocal in their support of the union were publicly attacked as “n——– lovers” by local police and management and some Latinos were threatened with deportation.

But things are turning around. Recent court decisions, notably those of the National Labor Relations Board and a federal appeals court in 2006, found Smithfield in violation of labor laws. And the Tar Heel plant workers are fighting back. Libby Manly, a community organizer with UFCW, said, “We have a very strong group of workers inside the plant signing up other workers. We have a strong organizing committee. Basically, workers are sick of getting disrespected day in and day out. Our message is simple: We’re here, we’ve got the cards signed and we’re not going away.”

While the Justice at Smithfield campaign currently aims for ‘neutrality and recognition’ at the plant, organizers are willing to move to the next level – a boycott of Smithfield products – if the company continues to ignore the demands of the Tar Heel plant workers. The organizers call for students to demand their universities drop the Tar Heel plant products from their cafeterias. And trade unionists are urged to show their solidarity with the campaign.

Jerrina Rodriguez of California State University at Bakersfield is an intern with Student Action with Farmworkers. She will be working on the Justice at Smithfield campaign this summer. When asked why she joined the campaign, Rodriguez explained, “I realized we need a change, not only for farmers, but for all workers – in the fields and in the factories. We need social justice. And we need it now.”

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Woman holding sign with hog cartoon, saying "Justicia"

Woman holding sign with hog cartoon saying, "some are more equal than others"

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