by John L. Godwin
It should not be surprising to discover that so many people here have not heard much, if anything, about the campaign launched by United Food and Commercial Workers, supported by Wilmington’s Central Labor Committee, on behalf of North Carolina workers at Smithfield Foods. With locations at Tarheel, in Bladen County, and at Wilson in eastern North Carolina and around the world, Smithfield Foods is today the world’s largest producer of hog farm produce. But the conditions in these plants and the treatment of those who work there reflect the long term trend toward far right conservatism that has affected the workplace throughout much of the country.
In fact, workers at Smithfield Foods in recent years have had their rights violated through a broad range of corrupt and illegal practices that have been denounced by labor leaders, clergy members and human rights advocates in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world.
It is amazing to think that so many in North Carolina may be among the last to find out about what has been happening right under our noses. Nor is this the first stink raised by big corporate agriculture in the Tarheel State.
The labor struggle at Smithfield Foods has been well documented. In August 2000 a report by Human Rights Watch detailed the violation of internationally recognized standards and U.S. labor law that have occurred here since 1994.
Workers in North Carolina are being targeted by ruthless tactics hatched out of corporate boardrooms and billion dollar law firms that are designed to reduce them to the status of passive, voiceless robots in a wasteland of pollution and deception.
The tactic is simple. Prevent workers from talking to each other about unions, and when they do talk about unions, make sure that it is with a company rep who threatens and misinforms.
Human Rights Watch views the violations in North Carolina as part of a broad recent trend that has intensified, citing cases from South Florida Nursing Homes to San Francisco Hotels and Baltimore packaging firms, including cases in Illinois, New Orleans, New York and elsewhere. But in North Carolina the violations of U.S. labor law have been so egregious they have led to a U.S. federal court decision (March 5, 2002), invoking the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871 (Ku Klux Klan Act) barring a conspiracy between state or local law enforcement with organized groups to violate the rights of U.S. citizens. This decision and that of two administrative rulings of the National Labor Relations Board have found Smithfield Foods guilty of illegally restricting the freedom of association of its employees under the provisions of U.S. statutes dating back to the 1930s.
Back in the days when President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s humane governance sought open partnership between progressive business and organized labor, the U.S. Congress enacted landmark legislation known as the National Labor Relations Act (1935). This law upholds the right of U.S. workers to peaceably associate for the purpose of forming unions and to engage in collective bargaining without undue restraint resulting from threats, intimidation or violence of any sort. Congress deemed this legislation necessary because more than a hundred years of labor agitation had pitted workers against management in an unremitting free-for-all. Too often, labor leaders were simply branded as criminals or shot down in cold blood, while workers toiled under hazardous conditions for less than subsistence wages.
Since 1935 the NLRB has provided an important, if not always effective tool for the regulation of labor-industry relations—one that has confirmed and enhanced the stature of American democracy around the world. But the recent events in North Carolina provide further proof that today’s conservative trend threatens to snuff out the torch of liberty while taking America back to the days of nineteenth century style labor wars. Nowhere has the case been more dramatic than here in North Carolina, where powerful forces are arrayed in opposition.
The last thirty years in N.C. have seen the far-reaching consolidation of agriculture, with vast corporate farms of Smithfield Foods replacing the small independent farms that once dotted the countryside. According to the company’s estimate, Smithfield Foods processes twenty million hogs, and raises twelve million hogs annually. This breaks down to almost 80,000 hogs slaughtered on a daily basis. Nearly half of these are killed at the company’s Bladen County North Carolina plant, which employs over 6,000 workers.
At this 975,000 square foot facility over 32,000 hogs per day are slaughtered by a workforce that is at least twenty to twenty-five percent Latino, including many undocumented workers. Most of the remaining workforce is African American. Receiving nearly $8 billion in overall annual sales, Smithfield owns subsidiaries in Canada, France, Poland, and the United Kingdom and operates joint ventures in Brazil, Mexico, and China.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union, that has sought to organize the workers at Smithfield Foods and give them a collective voice in negotiations with the company, is the largest organization of meat packing workers in the U.S.A. With more than 1.4 million members in its ranks, this AFL-CIO affiliated union is diversely composed of workers in health care, food processing, grocery store and other retail concerns, and in public service occupations such as bus drivers, police officers and teachers.
In 1994 and 1997 the UFCW undertook major campaigns to unionize the workers at Tarheel, North Carolina. Although North Carolina workers have historically tended to remain aloof from unions, conditions at the Smithfield plant were so bad that UFCW efforts were popular from the beginning. According to HRW, low wages, occupational injuries, and insufferable working conditions contributed to a turnover of more than 20,000 employees at the plant between 1993 and 1997. "Do you know what it's like to go home to your kids every day with your arms aching and you're smelling like hog blood and guts?" said one worker, quoted by HRW.
It was thus that Smithfield Foods found it necessary to employ the most ruthless tactics to stop the UFCW. Top level management apparently felt no remorse in setting out with a small army of lawyers, Bladen County Sheriff’s deputies, company security forces, and a specially recruited contingent of anti-union employees dubbed “the A-team” to see to it that the intent of U.S. labor law was effectively denied in Bladen County.
In two separate decisions taken in December 2000 and February 2001,the NLRB, (the nation’s chief regulatory agency charged with the responsibility of protecting the rights of American workers), held that Smithfield Foods in its campaign to stop the UFCW had engaged in more than nineteen separate illegal activities. Company reps threatened workers repeatedly with plant closings, engaged in continual surveillance of employees, threatened to fire workers, to deprive them of benefits, promised and delivered special benefits to anti-union workers, fired union supporters outright, penalized union workers with overtime when they did not want it, and deprived them of overtime when they did want it, interfered with employee’s workmen’s compensation claims, threatened to force workers to strike if they chose the union, threatened that workers who went on strike would be blacklisted from employment at other companies, threatened to have workers arrested for distributing union flyers, confiscated union flyers, asked workers to spy on other workers' union activity, grilled workers about other workers' union activities—all of these and more.
The most telling events in this drama occurred in 1997 at the close of the UFCW’s second attempt to unionize the workers at Tarheel. Smithfield Foods stiffened its resolve, employing a force of Bladen County deputies to patrol the highway entrance to the plant, with a squadron in full riot gear stationed at the factory gates, with more inside where union balloting was under way.
With the election in full swing, black civil rights advocate Jesse Jackson joined the ranks of union organizers, helping to combat racial fears and promote a collective effort among whites, blacks, and Hispanic workers. But plant managers by this time had already held separate pro-company meetings of black and Hispanic workers.
At a special hearing conducted by the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, and Labor, Senators heard the testimony of Sherri Buffkin, a former plant supervisor who had decided that the demands of her conscience required her to come forward with the full story of the ruthless tactics of divide and conquer employed against North Carolina workers.
According to Buffkin, “I’m here today to tell you how Smithfield Foods sought out and punished employees because they were union supporters, and that the company remained true to its word that it would stop at nothing to keep the union out…” And later, “Smithfield keeps Black and Latino employees virtually separated in the plant with the Black workers on the kill floor and the Latinos in the cut and conversion departments. Management hired a special outside consultant from California to run the anti-union campaign in Spanish for the Latinos who were seen as easy targets of manipulation because they could be threatened with immigration issues.”
Human Rights Watch recorded the statements of the spouse of one Hispanic worker, “these consultants told Latino workers that the union was dominated by black workers and that the organizing drive was really an effort by African-Americans—the majority of employees at the plant—to get rid of Latino workers and take all the jobs for black people. He said Latino workers were told "the union will see to it that you get fired because you don't have good papers" and that "the company will not bother you about your papers as long as you vote against the union."
Sherri Buffkin recounted how, on the day of the election, all the company’s salaried personnel were ordered to be in the election room when the votes were being counted. When final results of the election were announced the crowd “got really rowdy and started to chant, and I quote ‘niggers get out’ and ‘union scum go home.’” The substantial group, including security forces joined by sheriff’s deputies and local police officers began pushing union supporters toward the door out of the cafeteria. In the confusion, police beat, maced, handcuffed and arrested two union employees who had been active in the campaign.
Also significant is the involvement of North Carolina state officials in the Smithfield case through the use of prison inmates in a work-release program. Union officials maintained that approximately forty-five workers were bused into the plant each day from the Robeson Correctional Center, a state prison. The prisoners were not allowed to receive flyers or communicate with union representatives, either on the plant premises or when housed at the prison.
The events at Tarheel provide dramatic proof of the need to reexamine industrial relations in North Carolina and the U.S., while holding corporate leaders accountable. But according to the report by HRW these cases are part of a long-term trend that is reflected in statistics affecting millions of American workers throughout the U.S. since the 1970s. According to research cited in the report, by the 1990s, one of every eighteen employees involved in union election campaigns was subjected to discharge or other discrimination to discourage union representation.
Today, while Smithfield Foods remains on the defensive, workers at Tarheel and at Wilson are as limited as ever in terms of access to union representation. Directives issued by the NLRB and one decision by the U.S. Federal Court have not shaken the resolve of company ownership to prevent fair elections and deny unions access to workers.
While Smithfield Foods has hired a public relations firm to clean up its image, union leaders and civil rights advocates have mounted a nationwide campaign that has attempted to bring together a coalition of church activists, unionists, immigrants’ rights and human rights groups to organize strikes, write letters, and urge public support for workers at Smithfield Foods. The campaign has brought little results so far, while the Federal court decision remains on appeal. Meanwhile, the campaign has been endorsed by a broad range of groups that include the North Carolina Council of Churches, the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., the A. Philip Randolph Institute, the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, the NAACP and more.
North Carolina may not become the model of progressive and enlightened democracy that some of us would prefer any time soon. But given the recent trend today it seems more likely to become a model for corporate tyranny in America. This should remind us not only of the fallacies of the conservative thinking that has guided us through recent years, but also how far we have to go to before we can recognize that North Carolina workers deserve the same rights as other Americans, and that they deserve the protection afforded by U.S. labor laws. The rights of all citizens to clean air and clean water may be realized no sooner.
From The People’s Civic Record
Vol. 4, No.4 April 2004
The Liberal Persuasion:
Workers Rights In North Carolina and the U.S.A.