Victory at Smithfield Packing

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by Andy Pollack / December 2006 issue of Socialist Action Newspaper

In mid-November workers brought the world’s largest pork-processing plant, that of Smithfield Packing in Tar Heel, North Carolina, to a halt for two days in a winning fight against mass firings of immigrants.

The same two-thirds-Latino workforce that shut down the plant during last spring’s immigrant worker general strike turned their power against their own boss. Their battle took place at the crossroads of several key struggles—for immigrant worker rights, to organize the South and reorganize meatpacking nationally, to rebuild a weakened labor movement—and even the fight against denial of civil liberties in the “war on terror.”

Smithfield has beaten, harassed, and fired workers since the plant opened in 1992, and defeated union elections in 1994 and 1997 with such tactics. But the strength accumulated in previous battles stopped the company in its tracks this time.

Hundreds of Latino workers walked out Thursday morning, Nov. 16, in defense of 75 immigrant coworkers fired over “no match” letters from the Social Security Administration. Soon whites and Blacks followed, and 700 workers rallied outside, while 500 more joined in when the afternoon shift arrived.

Workers crippled production at the plant, which employs 6000 and slaughters 32,000 hogs a day. Even workers too scared to walk out wore pro-union shirts inside.

Gene Bruskin of the United Food and Commercial Workers, who has been leading the union’s organizing drive at the plant, said the workers themselves “are doing the planning and making the decisions.” And some pretty smart ones at that! Just as organizers of the 1936 Flint sitdown fooled bosses with false stories about which plant they would occupy, Smithfield workers caught bosses off-guard by letting out a rumor that they would walk out Friday instead of Thursday.

A white worker who joined the walkout, Keith Ludlum, said the company thought Latinos were too scared to protest. Ludlum himself was fired for supporting the union in 1994 but a court ordered his reinstatement.

Young Latina women played a key leadership role. But the bosses’ callous behavior has brought all workers together. “We all support the Latinos, and we all have our own reasons for wanting a union here.” So said Black worker Robert Dixon, who was disciplined for lateness when driving his sick fiancée to the doctor—and later for attending her funeral.

At a Thursday night meeting, 40 strike leaders prepared a list of demands, including an end to use of no-match letters for firings, reinstatement of those fired, and no retaliation for the walkout.

On Friday, a worker who was one of several fired from the company’s distribution center in Clayton, N.C., under similar circumstances drove to Tar Heel and told workers there that because of the walkout only three of the normal 40 trucks of pork a day had arrived from Tar Heel.

Management mailed out hundreds of no-match letters, claiming discrepancies between information given the company and SSA. Workers unable to explain the differences were fired.

Smithfield claimed it had no legal option but to comply with a new Department of Homeland Security rule. But in fact the DHS rule has only been proposed, not finalized. As the UFCW pointed out, the SSA itself says these letters cannot be used to fire workers.

The “no matches” are often the product of name changes and wrong data entry. Yet companies around the country are using the rule as an excuse for firings. Ana Avendao, head of the AFL-CIO’s Immigrant Worker Program, said the rule was being used selectively by bosses to “chill workers’ ability to act collectively.”

Laundry company Cintas, a target of UNITE-HERE organizers, issued no-match letters and firing threats to 400 workers in five states—especially at plants where organizing is most active. Housekeeping workers at the Woodfin Hotel in Emeryville, Calif., have been protesting receipt of such letters in retaliation for their demand that a living wage ordinance be obeyed.

Victory came Friday night, when it was announced that fired workers could return and the amount of time to respond to no-match letters would be increased. Workers will watch closely to make sure that those brought back stay at work.

Mailing of the letters will be suspended. No disciplinary action will be taken against those who walked out. And Smithfield agreed for the first time to meet with an elected committee of workers’ representatives.

The firings were the last straw after years of management intimidation, sexual harassment, arrests and violence—all designed to stifle protests over flagrant health and safety violations, speed-up, and low wages.

The plant’s line moves so fast that injuries are inevitable. Yet injured workers are often fired and denied worker’s compensation, even for crippling, permanent injuries.

On May 5 a U.S. Appeals Court upheld years of NLRB findings of labor law violations by the company (which is appealing to the Supreme Court).

Human Rights Watch has issued reports on meatpacking in general and Smithfield in particular, documenting “systematic human-rights violations” and a “culture of near-impunity” (for instance, the company lawyer who told a supervisor: “Fire the bitch. I’ll beat anything they throw at me in court.”).

Union supporters have been arrested, beaten, spied on, disciplined, fired and threatened with la migra. This was done by both local police and company guards—who are often the same people.

An NLRB judge found beatings and arrests were “done intentionally” and “planned in advance” by management, and concluded that no fair election could be held on its property. The union now demands recognition on the basis of pro-union cards signed.

In 2003 all Latino workers were called in to an antiunion meeting. But that same year, almost exactly three years before this year’s walkout, night cleaners walked out over the firing by a contractor of Latino line leaders. The NLRB ordered those fired for walking out rehired.

That struggle certainly helped build the confidence shown this year—as the latest walkout will inspire further struggle. The labor and immigrant movement must keep a close eye on coming battles at Smithfield, as the fight there has enormous implications for the whole range of struggles described above.

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