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Tar Heel Hell: Pigs Over People
A s the pleasant aroma of a holiday ham lingers in our memories of celebrations with friends and family, for workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina the odor is anything but pleasant.
At Smithfield Food’s plant in the town of Tar Heel, workers say they know one thing for sure: the company cares more about hogs than it does about them. One woman tells the story of a coworker on the processing line who dropped her knife and fell to the floor, suffering a heart attack. Supervisors were more concerned with keeping the hogs moving than with the woman’s fate. “We were all really upset, because we all knew her. You know, we work with her every day. That really got to me, to see how she was treated, like they didn’t even care. But watch a hog come through with something wrong with it, they’ll shut down the whole line and send it all back.”
Tar Heel is a Bladen County town with little more than a couple of gas stations, a few barbecue joints, and a Mexican grocery. In the midst of that is the Smithfield plant with a workforce of around 6,000 employees slaughtering more than 32,000 hogs a day. That’s 16,000 hogs per 8-hour shift; 2,000 per hour; 33 hogs every minute.
Smithfield, the largest pork producer in the world, decided to build the plant in a severely depressed area of the state. Investing in Bladen County was a boon to the local economy, but Smithfield also may have been hoping that high unemployment and poverty would produce a workforce that would bear whatever abuses and indignities were thrown their way.
In 2000, the plant came to national attention when it was described in the New York Times ’ Pulitzer Prize-winning series, “How Race is Lived in America.” Taking a job at the plant, reporter Charlie LeDuff discovered that, two generations after the end of legal segregation in the South, race still determines “who kills, who cuts, and who bosses.” The few whites working in the plant are mechanics or supervisors; Native American’s fill supervisory positions or have clean menial jobs; African Americans and Latinos do the dirty work.
Three years later, African Americans are still the majority on the kill floor, one of the dirtiest jobs in the plant. Latinos are the majority in the cut and conversion departments, where workers make the same cuts thousands of times during their eight-hour shifts. In these departments, injuries are so common they are almost a rite of passage.
Almost ten years ago, workers tried to form a union. Campaigns in 1994 and 1997 were met with violence and intimidation by the company. The 1994 campaign resulted in charges being filed against Smithfield Foods for violations of the National Labor Relations Act, including illegal surveillance, intimidation, threats, coercion, and harassment of workers. Seven workers were fired for union activity. In 1997, workers again tried to join the United Food and Commercial Workers Union and the company waged another anti-union campaign. Management took employees off their regular jobs to spy on coworkers and report back to management. Four workers were fired for union activity. In the end, the union was voted down by nearly a two to one margin.
LaTasha Peterson worked in sanitation and was a member of the “A-Team,” a group of employees who were paid to campaign against the union. “They needed people like us to tell them who they [the union supporters] were so they could fire them. They was gonna write them up so they could get rid of them. They told us to find out who and they’d handle it,” she testified at the labor board hearings.
In December 2000, Judge John H. West found that Smithfield had engaged in such “egregious and pervasive unfair labor practices and objectionable conduct” that a fair election was impossible. In his 436-page opinion, he ruled that workers had been threatened and interrogated over their union activity, that managers had lied under oath during the hearing, that the company had told workers there might be layoffs or the plant could be closed if the union won and that the union might report undocumented workers to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service if they won the election. West also found that the 11 fired workers from both union drives should be rehired and given back pay.
The election was overturned, and the judge added that workers were so intimidated by the company that the next election should be held outside the plant, perhaps outside the county. Smithfield has appealed the decision and it could be years before the case is resolved.
In another case, a U.S. District Court jury in Raleigh found in March 2002 that Smithfield and the company’s former security chief violated federal civil rights law and should pay $755,000 to 2 union supporters who were beaten and arrested on the last day of the 1997 union vote.
During its anti-union campaign, the company begged employees for another chance and promised to fix the problems. They put big-screen TVs in the cafeterias and handed out watermelons in the parking lot. They promised more vacation time and better pay. After the elections, the TVs disappeared and the pay raise never materialized. Workers who have been at the plant since the beginning say little has changed.
In 2003, a little scared and very determined, Smithfield employees were ready to try again.
On a warm summer evening in mid-July, I sat with Ruby (not her real name) under a tree in front of a mobile home she rents on the outskirts of town. She’s a grandmother of four who’s worked at the plant for seven years. “Favoritism is a giant problem” she said, “They don’t work everybody equal.”
Allen is a white man in his 50s who has been at the plant in different positions for years. He has noticed how favoritism divides workers in the plant and builds distrust. “There’s so many rules out there, but they don’t follow them. The company treats everybody different to keep them apart, to get them mad at each other…. They will let a Mexican get away with something and the others see it and get mad. Then they’ll let the blacks get away with something and that gets the Mexicans mad. They divide everybody that way, but they are just doing it so people don’t come together.”
Sherri Buffkin lives in Bladen- boro, not far from the Tar Heel plant, where she began working in 1992 as an hourly employee in the box room. By 1997, she had become a division manager and was responsible for all the plant’s purchasing except the hogs and maintenance items. She also supervised employees in warehouse and receiving, laundry, sanitation, building and grounds, and purchasing departments. She was fired in 1998, shortly after she told company attorneys that she would not lie in her testimony before the judge who was investigating Smithfield for unfair labor practices in the 1997 election.
In 2002, she testified before the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in Washington about her part in the company’s illegal anti-union campaign: “Latinos were seen as easy targets of manipulation because they could be threatened with immigration issues. The word was that black workers were going to be replaced with Latino workers because blacks were more favorable towards the union.” After defeating the union in 1994 by a narrow margin, the company began hiring more and more Latinos. In 1995, the workforce at the Tar Heel plant was 50 percent black, 20 percent white and Native American, and 30 percent Latino. Today 60 percent of the workers are Latino, 30 percent African American, 10 per- cent white and Native American.
As Buffkin testified, Smithfield has taken advantage of the vulnerability of immigrant workers in the plant. Like packing plants throughout the nation, Smithfield is full of undocumented workers.
In order to get a job at Smithfield, all applicants must provide proof of their eligibility to work legally in the United States. Many immigrants use false documents to get hired. When the company wants to get rid of them, it starts investigating. Because the majority of workers are undocumented, the odds favor the company.
Mercedes is a U.S. citizen. She came to the United States from Mexico in her early 20s, living with cousins in Los Angeles. When she got married, she and her husband decided to leave LA. “I arrived here before most people. When I came to this state there were almost no Hispanics here. There were probably only 70-80 of us in the plant. Now there are thousands of Hispanics at Smithfield.”
“There are many people who have had accidents in the plant,” Mercedes said. “They take them to the doctor and take care of them. Once the person is doing a little better they call them to the office and even though they may have been working in the plant for six years they will ask them for their papers. Then they tell them that their papers are bad and they are fired. I couldn’t tell you how many times they’ve done this.”
What Smithfield is doing is within the boundaries of legal conduct, but far from what is morally right. The company investigates and enforces the law when it benefits them, using an employee’s illegal status to its advantage. In this way, the company shirks responsibility for the accident, avoids paying workers’ comp, and the injured worker, limited to light duty, can be replaced by another person just as disposable as the ones who came before.
In the plant, how you are treated also depends on the color of the hard hat you wear: supervisors wear white hats, crew leaders wear grey hats, and new hires wear green. One day Mercedes, whose hat is neither white nor grey, went to throw away some trash she had collected from the area where she works. On the way back, she passed two women in the hallway she knew. As they walked by they greeted each other. Mercedes told them to call her that night and kept walking back to her place on the line. Then the supervisor accused Mercedes of abandoning her job to go talk to the two women, assuming that the women had only stopped talking because they had seen her coming. Mercedes said they talked only a few seconds, but the supervisor assumed the worst. Although Mercedes had witnesses who could testify on her behalf, she didn’t have the opportunity to tell her side of the story. The supervisor gave her a written warning.
The whole situation struck Mercedes as unfair. “I know that I have rights and that I’m not doing anything bad if one of my coworkers says, ‘See you tomorrow Mercedes,’ and I answer her, ‘Have a good night.’ I am one of the hardest working people here. I do my job well. What the supervisor accused me of is not true, but because the woman wears a white hard hat on her head, she is automatically right.… Why? Because she is the supervisor.”
In these tough economic times, Latino immigrants are not the only people in Robeson County who are worried about keeping their jobs. Since NAFTA was signed in 1994, the county, which was highly dependent on manufacturing as the base of the local economy, has lost over 8,000 jobs as factories close and move overseas. The unemployment rate in Robeson County hovers around 11 percent. Job security is a concern in the minds of many Smithfield employees.
Because North Carolina is an Employment-at-Will state, “an employer can treat its employees as it sees fit and fire them or discipline them whenever they want, with or without reason,” explained Jim Taylor of the state Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Unless there is a specific law or an employment contract, like a union contract, providing otherwise, there is no such thing as job security.
Manuel is from Texas, Gabriel is from Missouri, Pedro is from Minnesota, and Michael and Juan are from Kansas. They are all Latinos, all meatpacking workers, and all union members in the plants where they work. In May, they came to North Carolina to join a team of fellow union members, college students, and professional organizers to organize a union at Smithfield.
Gabriel Saldana is in his mid-20s, but at the plant where he works in Missouri he is a union steward, the person his coworkers go to when they have problems. When he first started talking to workers at Smithfield, he was shocked by how people are treated in the plant, “That’s probably one of the biggest differences between my plant and Smithfield. The people at my plant get more respect because they know if they yell at you and curse you out they know that they can’t get away with it. Here there is no one to go to…. In a union plant you have someone like me that you can tell and they can do something about it.”
At the end of the day it will be the workers, not the organizers, who will decide whether to unionize. It is my hope that when election day comes, enough people around the country will be watching what is happening in the small town of Tar Heel that the company will not repeat the dirty tricks of the last election. People will be able to go to the ballot box and cast their votes with hearts full of hope, not fear. When that day comes, the workers will already have won .
Hope Bastian is a college student who has worked on union organizing campaigns in rural North Carolina.
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