Pork Workers Accuse Top Plant of Treating them like Hogs
By: Lorinda Bullock
NNPA National Correspondent
Originally posted 6/19/2006
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – Trying to keep up the momentum from a recent Washington, D.C. Court of Appeals ruling, angry pork plant workers from Smithfield Foods in Tar Heel, N.C. are leaving the tobacco roads and crisscrossing the country this week to gain national support of a boycott of Smithfield’s pork products.
“We’re getting the message out about the conditions of the workers at Smithfield, the changes that should be made and how having a contract for the workers could change a lot of things at that plant, said Edward Morrison, a former worker at the plant, who is scheduled to speak at the events in Chicago, Washington, D.C., and in North Carolina.
“Find an alternative product if you can besides Smithfield products. If they don’t want to listen, then start hitting them in the pocket.”
The workers, who have teamed up with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) and other labor and civil rights groups, have launched their “A Change to Win Week” to bring more attention to what they call sub-par working conditions in the plant and the company’s illegal practices to curb the formation of a union.
Court documents said the company had instigated practices ranging from threats of termination and wage freezes, to ordering one worker to stamp hogs with a “Vote No” stamp.
Rallies, supermarket initiatives, and church services will be held in seven of Smithfield’s retail markets including Richmond, Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Raleigh and Boston, said Leila McDowell, a spokesperson for the UFCW.
“It’s just the beginning,” McDowell said of the campaign that also a national advertising campaign.
Joseph W. Luter, IV, the president and CEO of Smithfield Packing Company, says in a statement, “Since the UFCW has chosen this week to launch a nationwide ‘anti-Smithfield’ campaign, we must question the sincerity of the union’s motives now. If the union’s campaign succeeds, the people who will be hurt the most are the Smithfield employees that the union claims to want to help.”
Smithfield Foods is the largest hog producer and pork processor in the world and nets $7 billion annually under the name of Smithfield Foods.
That figure doesn’t include 32 other international acquisitions that also include beef production.
Since the plant opened in 1992, there have been two union elections, one in 1994 and in 1997 during which a fight broke out resulting in the arrests of some union supporters by a special Smithfield police department allowed by state law. The union lost both elections.
Court documents said Smithfield insisted the company did not unlawfully coerce anyone in an anti-union effort.
But the court sided with the National Labor Relations Board and upheld a “cease and desist” order the NLRB issued to Smithfield in 2004 “forbidding the company from interfering with, restraining, or coercing its employees in the exercise of their rights” under the National Labor Relations Act.
Luter, the president and CEO of Smithfield, released a statement last week saying the company would not appeal the court’s decision.
“Smithfield respects and accepts the court’s judgment, even though we strongly disagree with the findings. We have argued strenuously that the allegations the union made concerning Smithfield’s conduct during both elections were false. But we recognize that we have lost our case in court.”
Luter, who also announced his resignation as CEO, said “When a new election is called, we will comply fully with the NLRB’s remedies to assure a fair vote that represents the wishes of our plant’s employees. We believe that our plant should have the right to choose whether to unionize, and we respect the choices they make.”
Luter also said there were unions in other Smithfield plants that have operated peacefully, but have not been successful in Tar Heel and did not mince words about the company’s feelings toward the campaign.
After receiving complaints from the United Food and Commercial Workers, the NLRB investigated the Bladen County plant that kills 30,000 hogs per day and has about 6,000 employees, the largest hog-killing facility in the country.
The NLRB found the company used a number of scare tactics, including the confiscation of union materials, unfair discipline of employees displaying interest in union activities and the firing of four union supporters, Rayshawn Ward, Lawanna Johnson, Margo McMillan and Ada Perry.
In the May decision, the court also ordered the jobs of the four employees be reinstated.
Jerry Hostetter, a spokesman for Smithfield, did not return telephone calls from the NNPA seeking comment.
In addition to the NLRB, the Human Rights Watch, issue two reports on Smithfield. The most recent was “Blood, Sweat and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry” in 2005.
The report explained the dangers of high-speed production lines and the rights of immigrant workers.
“The company is quite clear about its continued opposition to unionization. In a written statement to Human Rights Watch it said:
'We do not believe a union is necessary or would be helpful to our employees at our Tar Heel, North Carolina plant. . . . If this location undergoes a union organizing drive or general activity, the company will continue to educate its employees on the value and success we have created together and the drawbacks of union organization for themselves, the company and our customers. . . . On occasion, the company has sought to utilize professional partners in the field of labor relations to assist with the education of labor issues to both the management and employee teams.’”
The workers and supporter Rev. Graylan Hagler said organizing the union at Smithfield will address other problems at the plant including safety and racial discrimination issues including threatening immigrants with deportation.
Hagler, the pastor of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, D.C., is the president of Ministers for Racial, Social, Economic Justice, a coalition of more than 600 congregations.
Hagler and some ministers from the group recently visited the plant and said he was disappointed to see only two Black supervisors in the plant that Human Rights Watch report said was nearly 60 percent Hispanic immigrants and 40 percent Black.
“Basically you have overwhelmingly White supervisors in a plant that is mostly people of color. It’s that, it’s the issues around safety, it’s the issues around workers being able to advocate for themselves,” he said.
Morrison explained that Smithfield often tried to divide Black and Latino workers by having them physically separated working in different areas to dissuade any type of solidarity that could help bring a union.
“They would always tell us don’t get mixed up in this stuff about the union, if you talk about the union they will fire you, (and) having the Hispanics think they’ll bring in INS if they try to vote for a union,” he said.
While Hagler attends the D.C. rally this week, he said his network of ministers in the other cities will also support the local events.
Hagler said during his tour there were other disturbing sights in regard to safety.
“You’ve got a massive plant that slaughters 32,000 hogs a day. The work is basically conveyor belt driven. The machinery puts the demand on the workers to perform. You see people doing this repetitive, heavy work with sharp instruments,” he said.
Hagler asked a supervisor when the workers got a break and was told they get a 30- minute break after three hours.
“You really can’t go to the restroom, you really can’t take a break off the floor and it’s the kind of work that begs for injury particularly the way it’s run. Because obviously Smithfield is looking at the highest productivity for the labor,” he said.
Labor organizer Morrison, 42, is constantly reminded about Smithfield’s response to safety issues when he pours over overdue medical bills the company refuses to pay for a job-related injury or when he tries to climb stairs.
He only worked at the plant for five months last year, working on the kill floor, the toughest job in the plant.
Standing 6 feet 1 inch tall and weighing 235 pounds, Morrison said despite being the oldest man on the floor, working mostly with 20- and 30-year-olds, “They took one look at me and said, ‘Okay kill floor.’”
Flipping an average 4,000 hogs that weighed nearly 400 pounds, each shift in temperatures that soared to 125 degrees, the job was taking a physical toll on Morrison.
“My arms would lock up from all this flipping all day long,” he recounted.
“My back and my legs would be tired. I would go home and fall in the bed.”
He would tell his supervisors of the pains he suffered regularly, but his complaints weren’t heard until he tore his meniscus, requiring surgery and physical therapy.
“They sent me a termination letter while I was on medical leave. They said if I couldn’t return to work 100 percent, and ready to go to work at my same job that I would be terminated. There was no way I was going to be able to do that same job after knee surgery.”
Morrison said Smithfield added further insult to injury by denying his workman’s compensation claim, which he is currently suing the company to recover.
Since losing his job, Morrison became a full-time organizer with the UFCW, telling his story and trying to get people to support a union at the Tar Hill plant and anyplace that needs one.
“Before my injury I was an athlete. I was active. I can’t run anymore,” Morrison says.
“This is something I’ve got to carry with me for the rest of my life.”