Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Another victory for Smithfield workers: A Contract

The big labor news out of the South is the victory by 5,000 workers at the Smithfield hog plant in Tar Heel, N.C., in gaining their first contract with the fiercely anti-union company. The victory comes eight months after the workers successfully voted in a union, ending a 16-year battle that included illegal firings, threats of violence against pro-union workers, spying on and blacklisting of union supporters, an on-site detention center, and lawsuits to prevent workers from organizing.

Local 1208 of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) at Tar Heel can now "join more than 10,000 other Smithfield workers, and the 240,000 others in the meat packing and food processing industry who have a UFCW union contract," the union said.

In the long struggle at Tar Heel for a union, one of the company's weapons was an ongoing effort to divide African-American and Latino workers. "The African-American and the Hispanic cultures are at war with each other because of plant propaganda," slaughterhouse worker Edward Morrison said in July 2006. Although both black and Latino workers were "getting injured left and right" at a plant where calls for safer conditions were usually ignored, he said, management was successful in "dividing the cultures."

Over the years, the plant workforce shifted from majority black to majority Latino, many of them undocumented and thus hired because they would work for even cheaper wages. Following federal immigration raids in early 2007, the workforce eventually shifted back from two-thirds Latino to majority black again, opening the door to a successful union drive. Studies show many undocumented workers resist unionization out of fear of being exposed, a fear exploited by the company prior to the raids.

According to the UFCW, the new contract includes wage increases over the next four years, continued company-provided health care coverage, and better sick leave and vacation benefits.

The contract and earlier union victory are especially significant considering they occurred in the state with the lowest rate of unionization in the country, an estimated 3.5 percent. Yet, as the North Carolina-based Institute for Southern Studies has reported, union membership actually rose in seven of the 13 Southern states between 2007 and 2008, and North Carolina was one of the seven.