On November 16 more than 1,000 workers staged a walkout at the Smithfield Packing Company plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world.
For those who’ve followed the working conditions at Smithfield–the ruthless speed of the production line, the lacerating injuries and the recent firings of several dozen immigrant workers–the walkout was a major development.
But Smithfield’s abuses are not new. For years, this mega-agribusiness has used fear and intimidation to keep its workers in check. (As a 2005 Human Rights Watch report noted, their security force has even been charged with beating union members.) The climate of fear increased when Smithfield began hiring Latino immigrant workers, often undocumented, to replace African-American workers a few years ago.
In September Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, wrote in The Nation‘s first food issue about the modern-day "jungle" Smithfield’s workers faced. His reporting described Smithfield’s longstanding violations of a wide array of labor laws and its creation of "an atmosphere of intimidation and coercion" in order to prevent workers at the plant from joining the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union.
There is some justice and coincidence in the fact that one day before the film version of Fast Food Nation was released nationwide, Smithfield’s workers staged their walkout.
The workers are now back on the job, as they work out their grievances with management. As Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies and a longtime analyst of the South and its labor conditions wrote me last night, Smithfield’s workers and the union have already scored two key victories:
The wildcat walk-off of over 1,000 Smithfield workers WAS a major development, and it will be interesting to see what happens next. Smithfield is "Exhibit A" of a rapidly-consolidating US agribusiness economy built on a cheap, increasingly undocumented workforce. The divide between the lucrative, rapidly-expanding top of the agribiz pyramid, and the primitive exploitation of those at the bottom, is stark. Smithfield’s giant plant in Tarheel, NC is a key link in the chain, the largest pork processing facility in the world.
The media has been reporting that the walk-out came after several workers were fired after Smithfield carried out a federally-mandated check of Social Security numbers to catch undocumented employees. This did indeed happen, and the firings, which ensnared several workers who were in the US on legal work permits, were likely the spark for the job action.
But frustration had been building for months on several fronts, including Smithfield’s unwillingness to give the United Food and Commercial Workers "card check" recognition; continued intimidation of union leaders; sexual harassment (of particular concern to the growing Latina workforce); the company’s refusal to pay worker’s comp for injuries on the job ; and other issues.
It’s also important to know that one of the big pro-immigrant rallies last spring happened near Smithfield, drawing over 5,000 people. That’s the context behind the uprising.
The media also uncritically reported Smithfield’s press releases stating that the plant was able to stay at "70 percent capacity," which served its purpose of stabilizing Smithfield’s falling stock on Thursday and into the weekend. But any worker will tell you the plant indeed came to a halt, which makes sense given that in a 48-hour period over one-fifth of the plant’s total workforce stopped working.
In short, AP and other media that simply repeated Smithfield press releases were horrible. News outlets that actually interviewed workers and union leaders (Steven Greenhouse in the New York Times, for example) gave a much clearer picture of the situation.
What next? First, workers scored two key victories in (1) getting Smithfield to stop firing people, and (2) agreeing to not retaliate against any workers who walked off the job. This is huge and a real victory for the workers and union.
Second, the new immigrant consciousness developing in states like North Carolina, combined with Smithfield’s horrendous conditions, mean this isn’t over. If anything, it will likely embolden workers to take further action. The Justice at Smithfield campaign organized by the UFCW just got a big shot in the arm. Watch out for more in this battleground of new immigrant labor in the South.
Writing about Smithfield in The Nation, Schlosser noted how Upton Sinclair "would be amazed–by how little has fundamentally changed, how brazenly a new set of immigrants is being exploited in a familiar way, how old lies are being repeated." If Sinclair were alive today, Schlosser wrote, "you would find him in Tar Heel, North Carolina, fighting for the union and angry as hell."
Last week the workers in Tar Heel, tired of the working conditions and the sexual harassment and angry as hell, began the long fight for their rights, dignity and economic justice.
Sinclair and Schlosser stood with them.