Unions Come to Smithfield
On Dec. 11,
When immigration agents raided Smithfield Food's huge
Yet on Dec. 11, 2008, when the votes were counted in the same packing plant, 2,041 workers had voted to join the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), while just 1,879 had voted against it. That stunning reversal set off celebrations in house trailers and ramshackle homes in Tarheel, Red Springs, St. Pauls, and all the tiny working-class towns spread from
Relief and happiness are understandable in
In 1994 and 1997,
Management used such extensive intimidation tactics that both elections were thrown out by the National Labor Relations Board. In 2006 the NLRB forced
In 2003 contract workers for QSI, a company that cleans the machinery at night, finally challenged that atmosphere of fear. According to Julio Vargas, a QSI employee, "The wages were very low, and we had no medical insurance. When people got hurt, after being taken to the office, they made them go back to work and wear pink helmets [to humiliate them]. We were fed up." Led by Vargas, the cleaning crew refused to go in to work. The company negotiated, and workers won concessions. The following week, however, those identified as ringleaders, like Vargas, lost their jobs.
Nevertheless, a new group of UFCW organizers understood the importance of that work stoppage. The union set up a workers' center in nearby Red Springs, holding classes on English and labor rights. Vargas and other fired workers went to work for the UFCW, organizing discontent over high line speed and its human cost in injuries. Workers began to stop production lines to get the company to talk with them about health and safety problems.
In April 2006, as immigrant protests spread across the country, 300
Those heady days, however, were followed by a series of immigration-enforcement actions orchestrated between the company and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. On Oct. 30, 2006, the plant's human resources department sent letters to hundreds of immigrant workers, saying the Social Security numbers they'd provided when they were hired didn't match the government's database. Managers gave them two weeks to come up with new ones.
"On November 13, over 30 were escorted out of the plant," recalled Peña. The following Thursday, more than 300 workers walked out in protest. They met at a local hotel, came up with a list of demands, and got church leaders to intercede with the company.
The success of the workplace action impressed African American workers, who at the time made up about 40 percent of the work force. Union supporters collected 4,000 signatures asking the company to give employees the day off on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. A delegation took the petitions to the human resources office, but a company vice president refused to accept them. When they were denied the holiday, 400 workers didn't come in anyway and virtually shut down the plant again.
"Unity between immigrant Latino and African American workers was essential to organizing a union," said Gene Bruskin, then the director of the UFCW's Justice at
Nine days after the Martin Luther King Day action, ICE agents came out to the plant in their first raid. After they arrested 21 people for deportation and questioned hundreds more in the factory lunchroom, fear grew so intense that most workers didn't show up the following day. A few months later, a similar raid took place.
The percentage of immigrants began to decline as many Latino workers were forced out of the plant. Eventually, the ratio between blacks and Latinos was reversed. The immigrant work force shrank to about 40 percent, while the percentage of African Americans rose to 60 percent. At that point, however, African American workers became more active in the unionization campaign. Union workers eventually collected the signatures of about half the plant's employees, demanding that the company agree to recognize the UFCW. Meanwhile, UFCW organizers began using the violation of workers' rights to mobilize customer pressure against
Inside the plant, militant activity began to rise again. One key moment came when Juan Navarro wrote "Union Time" with a felt pen on his helmet. Supervisors called him in and took away his helmet. Navarro worked on the kill floor where a majority of the workers are black. When he went back to the line, the other workers decided to back him up. "Union Time" appeared on their helmets, too, and eventually spread throughout the plant, becoming the slogan of the union campaign.
In the back room of the tiny Mexican market down the road from the plant, the union committee started meeting before and after work. Black and Puerto Rican activists would then take leaflets and union newsletters into the plant and walk through the halls and into the break rooms, handing out the information to their co-workers.
When Martin Luther King's birthday approached in 2008, the union passed out a leaflet telling workers to "hold the date." This time, the company not only gave Tarheel workers the holiday but also let workers take the day off in every nonunion
The company responded to rising pressure both inside and outside the plant by filing a racketeering suit against the union. It demanded the same kind of NLRB election it had won in 1994 and 1997 and accused the union of being anti-democratic when it would not agree to repeat the bitter experience of the past.
As a trial grew close, the union and the company agreed to an election procedure that workers and organizers felt would keep
In the meantime, the lunchrooms became hubs of union activity, with "Union Time" visible on helmets, leaflets, and buttons. To union activists, visibility inside the plant meant that, in the eyes of workers, the union had some power. Coupled with concessions on things like the King holiday, and a history of protest over accidents and line speed, it became clear the union could actually win changes. At the same time, workers were the union's visible leaders. Despite the firings and immigration raids, many veteran union supporters stayed active in the campaign. Union organizers spent countless hours with those leaders, talking about tactics and helping make decisions about the course of the campaign.
And when the ballots were counted, the union won.
Efforts by the modern
The price for the lack of a successful strategy to organize those Japanese plants became clear in December's congressional debate over the auto bailout proposal, when Southern Republican senators demanded that the United Auto Workers agree to gut its union contracts to match the nonunion wages and conditions at Nissan, Honda, and BMW. The presence of the nonunion plants now threatens to destroy the union. The same dilemma exists in industry after industry.
To get out of the box, today's labor movement pins its hopes on the Employee Free Choice Act. This proposal would require a company like
But EFCA by itself will not build strong unions, which workers can use not just to win elections but to make substantial changes in the workplace itself. The union at
And if African American and Latino immigrant workers hadn't found a way to work together, the union drive would have ended with the immigration raids. Immigration enforcement was used to attack the union drive, and for months after the no-match letter and the two raids, the organizing campaign was effectively dead. At
The root of the problem lies in employer sanctions, the provision of federal law that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. The law, in effect, makes working a crime for people without papers and hands employers a weapon to fight their own work force. When unions decided at the AFL-CIO convention in 1999 to call for repeal of sanctions, they recognized that changing immigration law was just as necessary for organizing unions as passing reforms like EFCA.
Outside the Tarheel plant, the union grew roots in working-class communities. It organized a permanent coalition with churches and community organizations, not just a temporary arrangement of convenience. It became part of workers' lives. They met in its office, took English classes there, and marched in demonstrations for civil rights. And that coalition was able to turn the company's anti-labor activity against it, exposing its record in the place where
Without pressure from workers and their communities,