Workers Vanguard No. 927

2 January 2009


Victory After 15-Year Battle

UFCW Organizes Smithfield Plant

North Carolina

In a major victory for all labor, workers at the Smithfield Foods pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, voted to unionize in mid-December. The fight to organize the 5,000 workers at the facility, the world’s largest hog slaughterhouse, began over 15 years ago. To keep the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union out, the company has routinely fired union supporters and engaged in a wide-ranging campaign of coercion, intimidation and violence. At times, it has orchestrated its anti-union terror with the forces of the bosses’ state, from local deputy sheriffs to federal immigration agents.

One of the biggest organizing successes in private industry in recent years, this victory in the least unionized state in the U.S. remains fragile and reversible. Workers face an ongoing battle to win a contract from Smithfield, which runs the plant like a plantation. In the past, the company has segregated black and Latino workers from each other and detained union activists in a jail cell in the plant. To this day, supervisors enforce a breakneck work pace and humiliate workers daily. With its stock price down more than 70 percent in recent months, Smithfield is even less likely to concede anything to the union without a fight.

A court-supervised settlement between Smithfield and the UFCW in October set up last month’s vote. Under the settlement, the union agreed to end its “corporate campaign” designed to publicly embarrass and put financial pressure on Smithfield for its anti-labor practices; in turn the company dropped its RICO racketeering lawsuit against the union (see “Smithfield Plant: Smash Anti-Union RICO Suit!” WV No. 909, 29 February 2008). The agreement also set the terms for what the union and the company could legally do to make their cases to the workers in the lead-up to the representation election. Shortly after the results were announced, UFCW head Joseph Hansen declared: “We won because that [the settlement] gave us more of a level playing field.”

In fact, the union did not get into the plant as the result of a “fair” legal process. Unions are built in struggle, not through ballots. With the UFCW tops tying up the organizing effort for years in the capitalist courts after failed representation elections in 1994 and 1997, workers began taking matters into their own hands. In 2003, workers on the plant sanitation crew walked out to protest wages and working conditions, winning concessions despite intimidation by company goons. Inspired by this action, workers stopped production to get the company to talk with them about health and safety concerns.

As immigrant rights protests swept the country in early 2006, Smithfield workers stayed off work, idling the Tar Heel plant on May Day. Six months later, when Smithfield fired 75 immigrant workers and threatened to fire hundreds more on the pretext that their Social Security numbers did not match government records, a two-day walkout that included black and white workers as well as Latinos forced the company to rehire everyone. Union supporters then collected 4,000 signatures demanding a paid holiday for Martin Luther King’s birthday. When management spurned them, some 400 workers stayed off the job. In 2008, the company for the first time gave the holiday to workers at all its non-union plants. Nine days after the MLK Day protest in 2007, immigration authorities raided the plant and workers’ homes, and another raid followed in August. The raids were carried out with the complicity of the company, which wanted to drive out union supporters. Since the start of 2007, more than 1,500 immigrant workers, most from Mexico, have been intimidated into leaving the plant, which is now 60 percent black.

If black and immigrant workers had not worked together, the organizing effort would have fallen apart. For years, management attempted to inflame racial and ethnic divisions. In the days before the election, union organizers had to combat widespread rumors that the National Labor Relations Board, which monitored the election, might ask workers to confirm their identities. The struggle for union recognition at Smithfield underlines that it is crucial for labor to fight against black oppression and to demand full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

The victory in Tar Heel could provide a springboard for organizing the open shop South, where “right to work” laws have historically been enforced by racist terror. The price of inaction can be seen in the growth of non-union plants in the South and other areas of the country where union power is weak to nonexistent. The refusal of the pro-capitalist tops of the United Auto Workers (UAW) to fight to organize the unorganized auto plants now threatens the very existence of the UAW, as the capitalists seek to destroy the union amid the current economic meltdown.

Revitalizing the labor movement in the South will require a level of class and social struggle that challenges the very foundations of the American bourgeois order, which is based on exploitation and racist oppression. But with their legalistic, pro-Democratic Party policies, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win officials are incapable of undertaking a militant mass organizing drive. What’s needed is a fight for a new, class-struggle union leadership that will unleash the social power of the working class, beginning with the existing beachheads of integrated union power in the South.