How US Policies Fueled Mexico's Great Migration
Veracruzanos Fight for the Union in Tar Heel
As unrest grew in Veracruz, it was also growing among the company’s workers in North Carolina. When the Tar Heel slaughterhouse opened in 1992, its labor force was made up mostly of African-Americans and local Lumbee Native Americans. Many objected to the high line speed and the injuries that proliferated as a result. The plant kills and dismembers 32,000 hogs every day. People stand very close together as animal carcasses speed by. They wield extremely sharp knives, slicing through sinews and bone in the same motion, hundreds of times each hour. Repetitive stress and other injuries are endemic to meatpacking, and the faster the line runs, the more injuries there are.
The workers’ frustration with the low wages and brutal working conditions produced one of the longest and bitterest fights to organize a union in modern US labor history. In 1994 and 1997 the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) lost two union representation elections. The 1997 election was thrown out by the labor board, but an administrative law judge ruled that in both, Smithfield “engaged in egregious and pervasive unfair labor practices and objectionable conduct.” In 1997 police in riot gear lined the walkway into the plant, and workers had to file past them to cast their ballots. At the end of the vote count, union organizer Ray Shawn was beaten up. Security chief Danny Priest and the other guards were later deputized, and Smithfield maintained a holding cell in a trailer on the property, which workers called the company jail.
Even by standards in North Carolina, where union membership and wages are low, Smithfield’s pay scale and reputation for injuries made it hard for the company to attract local workers. In the mid-’90s, Mexicans pushed by the effects of NAFTA to leave the Veracruz countryside began arriving in North Carolina and going to work at the Tar Heel slaughterhouse. All over Veracruz, meatpacking companies were recruiting them, according to Carolina Ramirez. “There were recruiters in many Veracruz towns,” she remembers. “There were even vans stationed in different places, and a whole system in which people were promised jobs in the packing plants. It was an open secret.” Richards, the Smithfield spokeswoman, denied that the company recruited workers in Mexico. “With one exception [a management trainee program], Smithfield Foods does not travel to, nor advertise in, other countries or outside of our local communities to actively recruit employees for our various facilities around the country,” she said.
Roberto Ortega remembers that there were hundreds of people from Veracruz in the Tar Heel plant when he worked there in the late ’90s and early 2000s. They’d have community get-togethers, eat seafood and play their state’s famous jarocho music on wooden harps and guitars. “Almost the whole town [of Las Choapas] is here,” he says. “Some are supervisors and mayordomos, and they bring people from the town.”