In 1997, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union lost a unionization election at the sprawling plant, built in this rural town 75 miles south of Raleigh. But it was not until 2004 that the National Labor Relations Board upheld an administrative law judge's decision that threw out the election results.
The labor board found that the Smithfield Packing Company not only had prevented a fair election by illegally intimidating, firing, threatening and spying on workers but also had a union supporter beaten up the night of the vote count.
Seven years to finaly rule that the company violated the workers rights to a fair vote for a union. Seven years that the company was allowed to continue abusing its workers and for which the workers had no recourse of a union. Even after the ruling, organizers fear that the company would continue to act in the same way, intimidating workers so that they still would be unable to get a fair vote. If a new vote were held today and the company engaged in the same tactics and the vote had the same result, it would take another seven years to get the same ruling from the NLRB. Another 7 years for which employees would have no way to defend themselves against company abuses. I talk about company abuses, because they are many at the Smithfield Packing Company, and many of those abuses would be solved if the workers were allowed a union, something that the company is hell bent on preventing.
Among the nearly 5,500 workers at the Smithfield plant who kill the hogs and cut them into hams, ribs and pork chops, there is a steady stream of complaints about bullying managers, the line speed and the many injuries to hands, arms and shoulders.
"A union would help reduce all the injuries — people are getting hurt left and right," said Edward Morrison, 42, an Army veteran who quit his job on the kill floor in October after tearing his knee while straining to push a rack that had five hogs hanging from it. "A union would also give the workers a say-so."
One of those the union has enlisted is the Rev. Markel Hutchins, associate pastor at Philadelphia Baptist Church in Atlanta. "I became involved with this not so much as a union issue, but as a civil and human rights issue," said Mr. Hutchins, who has spoken at churches and colleges to rally support for the Smithfield workers. "What's happening there is eerily reminiscent of the days of Jim Crow in terms of gross mistreatment."
"Given the history of Smithfield, if you try to have a free and fair election, it ain't going to work," said Gene Bruskin, the director of the unionization drive. "What Smithfield needs to hear is the message that workers have a right to make a decision about whether they want a union without being beaten, terrorized, intimidated and threatened."
Mr. Hostetter said Smithfield maintained a good relationship with unions at its unionized plants — 21,800 of its 51,290 workers have union representation. But union officials are quick to point out that the workers at many of those [unionized] plants earn on average 40 percent more than the Tar Heel workers, who usually earn $8.50 to $11.50 an hour.
But Joseph T. Hansen, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, said: "We could have an election there every year, but it won't be fair because the workers will be terrorized. Why should we keep beating our head against the wall?"
Mr. Hansen said the lower pay at the Tar Heel plant was putting downward pressure on pay throughout the industry. "The way people are treated there is outrageous," he added. "The people there are treated as if they're in the Sudan and not in the United States."
The labor board and the administrative law judge ruled that Smithfield had repeatedly broken the law in pressing workers to vote against the union.
According to those rulings, Smithfield managers illegally fired four workers for supporting the union and threatened to freeze wages, discharge employees and close the plant if the workers unionized. The two rulings also found that Smithfield had improperly intimidated union supporters by having its small police force mill outside the polling station at the plant.
Lorena Ramos, 29, an immigrant from Honduras, said Smithfield's managers and consultants often told the workers that the union only wanted employees' dues money and would cause strikes that could lead to violence, job losses and even closing the plant.
Her right arm was badly injured when it got caught in a conveyer belt as she was scooping dry ice into packing boxes. She and her husband were outspoken union supporters, and they said they were shocked and embarrassed when the plant's internal police force arrested them, handcuffed them and paraded them through the plant, accusing them of setting a fire in one of the plant's cafeterias. The county's district attorney dropped the charges for lack of evidence.
Ms. Ramos quit the plant after the arrest, too scared to return. The union hired her as an organizer because of her popularity, courage and communications skills.
"Right now if the workers want something to change at the plant, the plant's not going to listen to them," she said. "If the workers have a union, then they will be listened to."
For workers, line speed is one of the biggest issues. On each processing line on the kill floor, a hog passes about every three and a half seconds, translating into about 1,000 hogs an hour, 8,000 a shift. Many workers complain that injuries are caused by the line speed and by having to do the same task thousands of times daily. Workers sometimes even stab one another or themselves by mistake.
Abusive company that won't allow a fair vote can get away with it, because even if they lose at the NLRB they get to continue to abuse workers for the next 7 years. The process is far too slow to guarantee any justice for workers. We need reform at the NLRB speeding up the process and imposing harsher punishments for companies that intimidate workers out of unionizing, this 7 year process ending in nothing worse than a slap on the wrist does little to guarantee the protection of workers rights. Particularly in a climate where the NLRB is stacked with people friendly to big business interests.