The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Broad Coalition Fights to End Meat Plant Abuses

by Catherine Komp

After nearly a decade of fighting for fair treatment and better rights at a North Carolina-based meat processing plant, workers and their allies are turning to public pressure to force Smithfield Packing to change its practices.

June 20, 2006 – In a day’s work on the kill floor of Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, North Carolina, Edward Morrison "flipped" 4,000 hogs, each weighing between 250 and 400 pounds, in temperatures topping 100 degrees. Quickly realizing the heavy toll this job was having on his body, Morrison said he asked human resources for a new position.

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"But because I needed that job and they knew it, they didn’t change it for me, so I had to keep doing it to pay bills," said Morrison. "And once I got used to the job, I grew accustomed to every day being miserable, knowing I have to go into this plant, walking into this dark room that looks like hell to me with these two fires burning."

Morrison’s position involved grabbing freshly slaughtered hogs by their legs and flipping the huge animals on to their side as they rapidly spit out of a de-hairing machine. After six months on the job, Morrison suffered a meniscus tear in his knee, often caused by twisting or pivoting, and needed surgery. While he was out on medical leave, he said, Smithfield denied his Workers’ Compensation claim and sent him termination papers.

Labor advocates say Morrison’s experience is one of many cases over the last ten years in which Smithfield Packing – the world’s largest pork producer, generating more than $11.4 billion in revenue in 2005 – has mistreated and violated the rights of employees at the Tar Heel Plant.

Though federal agencies, courts and human-rights organizations have documented Smithfield’s abuses, including threats, intimidation and even physical attacks, labor organizers say the company has not been held accountable.

Though federal agencies, courts and human-rights organizations have documented Smithfield’s abuses, including threats, intimidation and even physical attacks, organizers with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union say the company has not been held accountable.

In response, workers’ advocates launched a multi-city public-education campaign this week to pressure the company to change its workplace practices. Coalitions of labor organizers, civil rights groups, immigrant rights groups, and student and faith-based organizations will be holding public meetings and rallies in seven of Smithfield’s major markets including Chicago, New York City, Richmond and Atlanta.

"The union feels like they’ve sort of exhausted all the normal remedies," said Gene Bruskin, Smithfield campaign organizer with UFCW. "[But] we truly believe that when the world hears and when the country hears and when the consumer hears about the mistreatment of people, that it’s going to be hard for the company to ignore the response from people out there who buy their product."

In Richmond, about 150 people gathered Monday night at Cedar Street Baptist Church to hear from local community leaders involved in the Smithfield Justice campaign and former and current employees who traveled from North Carolina to share their stories.

"We cannot sit by idly while the administration of the Smithfield plant continues to tromp on the rights and the dignity of its workers," said Reverend Dr. Alfred Reid, who emceed the event. "We want to tell Smithfield [that] the workers at Tar Heel are not standing alone."

"What workers repeatedly told me is they work in pain, or they work in fear that if they get hurt or if they report an injury, they’re going to lose their jobs," said Compa.

Mikki Harris, an organizer with the Richmond chapters of the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and UFCW, told the audience she started crying as she listened to the Smithfield workers speak.

"I feel your pain. I’ve worked in a plant before, I’ve been called nigger before, I’ve been told to speed the line before, so I know exactly what it is you’re going through," said Harris. "But I stand with you, I stand for you, I stand behind you, I stand beside you, I stand."

The approximately 6,000 workers at Smithfield’s Tar Heel facility, one of the company’s few non-unionized plants, slaughter about 32,000 hogs a day – a feverish 33 hogs each minute, according to UFCW. Entry-level workers, the majority either Latino or black, start out making less than $10 per hour and are ineligible for health insurance for six months, according to UFCW. The union has funded a workers’ center near the plant, which provides information on workers rights, English classes and a monthly pot-luck dinner. Organizer Eduardo Peña has worked at the center for the last three years.

"I think that the company sees that there’s no consequences to their actions," Peña told The NewStandard. "So of course, it’s like any other situation in life where if there’s no consequences people feel like they can do whatever they want."

In January 2005, the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that conducts union elections and investigates claims of unfair management-labor practices, unanimously upheld an administrative law judge’s 443-page ruling that charged Smithfield with numerous violations of federal labor law after workers implemented two controversial organizing drives in 1994 and 1997. Both failed to win enough votes for unionization.

Despite the long trail of testimony and evidence against Smithfield, labor and human-rights advocates say weak US law permits the company – and others like it – to get away with worker abuses not only in meat-packing but in other dangerous industries.

The judge threw out the results of the union votes, finding that Smithfield used local sheriff department deputies to intimidate and assault union supporters, held mandatory meetings to intimidate and threaten workers for supporting the union, used its private police force to falsely arrest union supporters, and threatened to close the plant if workers voted for a union.

Lance Compa, author and labor law professor at Cornell University, said despite decades of experience researching labor rights and violations, he is surprised at the depth of the problems at the Tar Heel plant. "Some of the things reminded me of other work that I’ve done looking at workers’ rights violations [under] military dictatorships in Central America in the 1980s," he said.

Compa authored two extensive reports on US labor issues for Human Rights Watch (HRW) released in 2000 and 2005. "Unfair Advantage" examined workers right to freedom of association, and the 175-page "Blood, Sweat, and Fear" documented threats to worker health and safety. Both reports used research and interviews gathered in Tar Heel.

Despite the long trail of testimony and evidence against Smithfield, labor and human-rights advocates say weak US law permits the company – and others like it – to get away with worker abuses not only in meat-packing but in other dangerous industries. Compa and the HRW report list dozens of state and federal shortcomings. These include weak OSHA and USDA laws that permit unsafe line speeds and under-reporting of injuries; a lack of ergonomic standards to require better job training and more frequent breaks; and poor state-level workers’ compensation standards that allow companies to easily delay or deny rightful claims.

"What [Smithfield] workers repeatedly told me is they work in pain, or they work in fear that if they get hurt or if they report an injury, they’re going to lose their jobs," said Compa. "And there’s enough evidence of that, of people being terminated or not being allowed to come back after an injury, that this is not just a deep-seeded fear."

The HRW report also cites excessive line speeds at Smithfield, close cutting quarters, inadequate training and equipment, interference of workers right to organize, discrimination against immigrant workers, and intimidation by the company’s private police department, which until recently, had the power to arrest and detain employees.

Smithfield did not return TNS requests for an interview, but an undated press release on its website celebrated a "setback" dealt to UFCW in its attempt to organize Tar Heel workers.

In addition to weak state and federal laws protecting workers, UFCW’s Bruskin cited Smithfield’s "immorality."

Bruskin noted the company owns plants all around the world. "But they decided to go to North Carolina where they knew very well they could operate in a non-union climate, in a rural area, with very little union history, and that they could get away with exploiting people," said Bruskin. "So it’s working for them – it’s just part of the price of doing business that the union has been a pain in the neck. But they haven’t paid enough of a price to do the right thing."

Bruskin said workers are not formally calling for a boycott of Smithfield products, but will leave it up to communities to make a choice. The six-city campaign runs through June 22.

"It’s clear that the labor movement can no longer make progress as kind of an insulated, go-it-alone entity or organization," author Compa told TNS. "It’s really got to be a social movement that brings in allies in the human rights community, the civil rights community, the religious community, women and farmers, and safe-food activists, environmentalists and so on. That’s the kind of broad coalition that I think can help bring back a stronger labor movement, which is really going to benefit society as a whole."

In Richmond Monday night, Reverend Reid was in agreement. "We’re not a talking mouth piece for a labor union. We didn’t come here tonight with that narrow agenda," said Reid to the growing applause of the audience. "We’re here tonight because there comes a time when people get just tired of being under the weight of oppression. There comes a time when you have to stand up for rights. We’re here because justice demands that we be here."

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


This News Article originally appeared in the June 20, 2006 edition of The NewStandard.
Catherine Komp is a contributing journalist.

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