Blacks, Latinos Mount Union Drive in North Carolina

New America Media, News Feature, Marc Goumbri Posted: May 07, 2007

Traducción al español

Editor's Note: Latino and African-American workers in North Carolina face tough working conditions and an employer intent on blocking their efforts to unionize at a meat processing plant, according to one union activist.

TAR HEEL, N.C. -- justice“We want a moratorium on arrests of Latino workers. They didn’t make the system, but they bear the costs,” exclaimed Rev. Nelson Johnson, co-founder of the Southern Faith, Labor and Community Alliance. Johnson was expressing his outrage following the arrests in January of nearly two dozen immigrants at Smithfield Packing Inc., the world’s largest meat processing facility located in Tar Heel, North Carolina.

With Latino workers comprising 60 percent of the more than 5,500 workers at Smithfield’s Bladen County facility, the Latino community is tremendously important for the local economy. The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency’s January raid left a community in disarray. Following the arrests, hundreds of frightened workers did not report to work and many left town.

Immigration issues spark controversy across political, social and economic landscapes, but the history of Smithfield Packing has a particular twist. When the plant opened in 1992, there were almost no immigrant workers. Over the years, hundreds of Latino immigrants moved to the area for work opportunities, a match made in heaven some would say. Immigrant workers in search of a better life were employed by a company looking for cheap labor in order to cut costs and maximize profits.

With the number of Latino workers growing, the company tried to use the racial and cultural divides between African Americans and Latinos to prevent them from organizing together in a union. In her 2002 testimony before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Sherry Bufkin, a former supervisor at Smithfield, revealed that “Smithfield keeps blacks and Latinos virtually separated in the plant with the black workers on the kill floor and the Latinos in the cut and conversion department. Management hired a special outside consultant from California to run the anti-union campaign in Spanish for the Latinos who 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 unions.”

Despite Smithfield’s efforts, Latino and African-American workers have come to support each other. In November 2006, more than 1,000 workers, mostly Latinos, walked out of Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant to protest unfair labor screening practices. Newsweek magazine called the walk out “A Thanksgiving rebellion.” Workers gathered outside the plant chanting ‘Si se puede’ (Yes, we can) and ‘Justicia’ (Justice). Several of their African-American co-workers stopped working in solidarity. Similarly, when the African American workers did not report to work this January after the company refused to give them a day off on Martin Luther King’s Day, many of their Latino counterparts stood with them in the face of the company’s threats of retaliation.

According to several workers’ accounts, worker abuse is common at Smithfield Packing. At only 23, Denise Walker, a former Smithfield Packing employee, recalls her experience at the Tar Heel plant as the bleakest of her life. “I had to deal with sexual harassment from the managers; they could touch you and make nasty comments and there wasn't nothing you could do unless you wanted to lose your job. I had so many health problems from working there, that they took away my disability and finally fired me for missing work, even though I was in the hospital at the time.”

In its second report on the plant, “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants”, released in 2005, Human Rights Watch revealed countless abuses of workers at Smithfield Packing. A more recent report by Research Associates of America based on Smithfield’s own OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) logs, shows that injury rates have gone up 200 percent in the last three years at Smithfield Packing. Injuries are due in large part to the excessive line speeds the company maintains in order to meet production goals. Additionally, Smithfield Foods was found in numerous legal rulings to have assaulted, used racial epithets against, harassed, intimidated, threatened and illegally fired its workers.

In January, Smithfield reached an agreement with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). The company agreed to pay $1.5 million in back wages as ordered by the U.S. Court of Appeals to workers it illegally fired, and for interfering with union elections in 1994 and 1997, respectively.

The arrests at Smithfield prompted Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass) to send a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "It is imperative that Congress takes the time to examine existing verification systems," Kennedy wrote, asking Chertoff to defer any issuance of final regulations until Congress completes action on comprehensive immigration reform.

The ICE raid at Smithfield appears to be a direct consequence of Smithfield’s enrollment in the IMAGE program (ICE Mutual Agreement between Government and Employers). IMAGE mandates employers to cross-reference all employees’ names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and genders. The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union asserts that Smithfield, found by the NLRB to have illegally threatened workers with arrest by immigration authorities, is reporting names to ICE as a tactic of intimidation. “A company in the middle of a labor dispute, with more than two-thirds of its workforce composed of Latino immigrants, volunteering for a government program designed to check the employment status of immigrants seems very convenient,” said a union official.

Today, Danny Glover, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and “Fast Food Nation” author Eric Schlosser are among those now lending their voices to the workers’ struggle in Tar Heel for better working conditions.

In April, Democratic presidential candidate, John Edwards wrote to Smithfield’s CEO, C. Larry Pope, asking him to “protect the right of [Smithfield] workers in North Carolina and across the country to form a union and bargain collectively." "Protecting the right to organize in our democracy is important because it allows working men and women to help make decisions that affect their work lives," Edwards wrote.

In May, the Senate is to vote on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). If enacted, EFCA will provide Smithfield workers and workers across the country with the adequate framework to freely elect to organize in a union without employer interference. Twice before has the NLRB ruled against Smithfield, but the current NLRB election system, because of the lack of meaningful sanctions against employers who break the law, has enabled companies -- with virtual impunity -- to harass, intimidate, fire and even beat workers who support a union. But with EFCA, when a majority of workers sign cards opting for a union, they’ll get one.

Marc Goumbri is a writer and researcher and currently works with Research Associates of America

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