Nov. 27, 2006 – An employee walk-out at a giant hog slaughterhouse in North Carolina forced company officials to alter its policy on firing workers whose Social Security numbers are not verified.
The spontaneous two-day demonstration at Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel occurred November 16-17 after the company fired several dozen employees whose names and Social Security numbers did not match government records.
"The walk out was really the culmination of years of abuse happening inside the plant," said Gene Bruskin, Smithfield campaign director for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, which is trying to organize workers at the Tar Heel plant. "A lot of these workers, some of them have been there five to ten years or even longer. And coming out of nowhere, Smithfield starts firing people or threatening to fire themâ€¦ and workers just lost it, couldnâ€™t take it anymore and walked out the door."
According to a statement from Smithfield, about 1,000 of the plantâ€™s 5,000 workers walked out, forcing the company to run at 70 percent of capacity. The plant employs mostly Latino and black workers.
In response to the walk out, Smithfield said UFCW was "misleading" Latino workers about the Social Security "no-match" process.
In negotiations with workers, however, company officials agreed to give employees more time to rectify inconsistencies with their Social Security information. Smithfield also said it assigned a human resources staff person to help employees resolve Social Security problems.
"Smithfield starts firing people or threatening to fire themâ€¦ and workers just lost it, couldnâ€™t take it anymore and walked out the door."
Smithfield is a voluntary participant in a new US Immigration and Customs Enforcement effort to "combat unlawful employment." To enroll in the program, called ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers (IMAGE), Smithfield submitted the names and Social Security numbers of its entire workforce to ICE. The company says it fired workers whose information did not match government records and who did not rectify the discrepancies within two weeks of being notified of the inconsistencies.
Labor activists, however, suspect the company used the program as an excuse to fire workers in order to intimidate remaining employees away from a campaign to improve working conditions at the plant.
Unlike many of Smithfieldâ€™s other facilities, the workers at the Tar Heel plant are not unionized. The plant has been the focus of a 12-year-long drive to win UFCW representation for workers. As previously reported by The NewStandard, federal agencies, courts, human rights groups and Smithfield workers have documented a long history of worker mistreatment, including threats and intimidation during past organizing drives.
This Saturday, religious and civil rights leaders across North Carolina will encourage the Harris Teeter supermarket chain to stop selling Smithfield products "until the ongoing mistreatment and abuse of workers ends."
The action is part of a multi-city "Justice at Smithfield" campaign launched last June by a broad coalition of groups to pressure the company to improve working conditions. The coalition plans simultaneous demonstrations across the state, including in Asheville, Charlotte, Durham and Raleigh.