The Smithfield Strike Victory
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the strike victory by the more than 5,000 workers employed by Smithfield Corporation, at its meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina—the largest hog-slaughterhouse and processing plant in the world.
The strike erupted on November 16 and ended on the morning of the 17th, when the company asked for a meeting and made important concessions to strikers’ demands. The ramifications of this stunning victory go far beyond this one plant, one company, one industry, or one small part of the American working class.
Highlighting the extraordinary importance of this walkout is the unusual reason why they walked—to demand that Smithfield’s bosses reinstate over 75 allegedly undocumented workers. No less remarkably, 1,000 of the company’s 5,000 workers, 60 percent of whom are immigrants and 30 percent Black, along with the white minority, stuck together and forced Smithfield bosses to reinstate those fired—and to make further concessions as well. Here are the most important:
• The Company agreed to reinstate those workers who had been fired.
• There is to be no more firing.
• No disciplinary actions of any kind will be taken against those employees who participated in the walkout.
And to top off their acceptance of the first three demands of the strikers:
•Smithfield also agreed to meet with a 14-member committee, to be elected by the workers on the basis of one from each of the 14 departments on both shifts, to deal with “concerns” raised by the workers—a diplomat’s euphemism for the 12-year-long struggle for better wages and working conditions, union representation, and an end to the dangerously inhuman pace at which employees are compelled to work.
Although these concessions testify to the intrinsic power of organized workers to force their employers to come to terms, the big issues for which these workers struck—wages, hours, safer working conditions, and their longstanding demand for a union contract—have yet to be resolved.
Even so, striking workers have profoundly shifted the balance of power from Smithfield bosses to these newly empowered workers. The latter had twice filed petitions with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for union certification elections, once in 1994 and again in 1997, and lost both elections. But only because Smithfield fired, harassed, and beat up enough union supporters to edge out a majority vote against the union.
But workers learned a valuable lesson from the first two attempts. Consequently, on their third try, they decided to follow the old-fashioned, direct-action route to union organization by marching and picketing outside instead of working inside.
Moreover, they were able to keep secret their planned action long enough to catch their bosses by surprise with the sudden appearance of 500 chanting and marching militant pickets outside, and that many fewer workers inside to begin the slaughtering and processing of more than 30,000 hogs in the next 24 hours. When the second shift arrived, another 500 workers joined the marching pickets.
But this part of the strike scenario needs to be explained for the reader to fully appreciate its impact on Smithfield’s bottom line.
Surprise, of course, is an important factor in wars between nations and classes—and a strike is, indeed, class battle. In this case, because the logistics of planning such a complex operation involving 30,000 pigs and 5,000 packinghouse workers, and the scores of trucks and drivers needed to transport the finished product to their varied destinations around the country, means that the surprise and impact of 1,000 missing workers caused far more than a loss of only one-fifth of production on the first day. More worrisome yet to Smithfield management is the uncertainty of how many workers will show up on following days.
This is the equivalent of strikers throwing a legal “monkey wrench” into a very complicated machine with thousands of moving parts.
Now, no matter how this battle turns out in the end, Smithfield strikers learned two lessons that they are not likely to forget and that will greatly improve their effectiveness in the months and years to come. They learned that workers can only get what they’re strong enough to take
But let’s take a closer look at why direct action by the workers themselves is a far better road to follow than relying on an election organized and controlled by the indisputably pro-capitalist, anti-worker government of the United States.
What you can get from direct action that you can’t get from an NLRB election
Winning union recognition via direct action has two big advantages over a government organized and controlled election. First, bosses can steal such an election, but they can’t steal a victory over a strike—they have to overpower and crush striking workers and their strike! The fact that the company didn’t try to do this demonstrates that they had reason to believe that the strike would continue snowballing when the time came for each subsequent shift to come to work.
And second, if workers win a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) election, the employer is compelled only to go through the motions of negotiating a final settlement. But it is under no compulsion to make anything more than token concessions to prove that it is indeed negotiating.
But by winning the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and working conditions by strike action, workers have also gone more than halfway toward winning an acceptable labor contract. They have forced a reluctant employer to recognize their union by hitting them hard where it hurts most—in the pocketbook. The union also has sent a convincing message that now, with the confidence gained by their first strike victory under their belts, workers are sure to fight longer and harder for the kind of contract they think they deserve and can get.
Smithfield strikers are now in a stronger position than if they had filed for and won an NLRB election. Nevertheless, they still have not yet achieved their goal of improved wages, benefits, and significantly safer working conditions. In other words, though they have convinced Smithfield bosses that these seemingly powerless workers are a force to be feared and respected, the final outcome of this struggle still hangs in the balance.
However, Smithfield Corporation and its workforce are not the only combatants. Also intimately involved in this struggle is capitalist America on one side, and working-class America on the other. Therefore, which way the struggle in Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant goes, for or against its rebellious workforce, depends to a great extent on how capitalist America and its government on one side, and the U.S. working class and its unions on the other, respond to the challenge.
The capitalist government counterattacks
Not quite a month had passed before the inevitable happened. As Smithfield bosses had confidently expected, the U.S. government came to their rescue. On December 12, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff retaliated against Smithfield’s striking workers and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union (UFCW), whose organizers had helped them coordinate their strike. Chertoff launched simultaneous dawn raids on six Swift & Company meatpacking plants, in six states—all of which were under contract with the UFCW.
The federal government’s Homeland Security cops swept across the six plants, arresting nearly 1,300 UFCW members on the charge of illegally living and working in the United States. To further demonize these workers in the eyes of the public, he charged them with having stolen the identities of American citizens. But nothing was stolen. Because undocumented workers are unable to get real Social Security numbers, all they need to do when applying for work is to simply put down a fictitious nine-digit number. Thus, some of these fake numbers coincided with real Social Security numbers owned by real people. But nothing is stolen. In fact, the Social Security and income taxes deducted from the paychecks of undocumented workers are automatically credited to the real owners of the Social Security numbers.
But all of this begs the question: How did 11 million undocumented immigrants get to be living and working in the USA?
It all started in 1917 after the United States entered the First World War. That’s when the so-called “guest worker” program was first introduced in a treaty signed by the Mexican and American governments. Guest workers were a brand-new kind of immigrant invited to come live and work in this country, but only for a specified time and only for the lowest-paid jobs, mostly in agriculture.
Its temporary nature was the beauty part of this scheme cooked up by your typical money-hungry capitalists to create an ever-expanding army of superexploited and doubly oppressed workers. This new category of third-class workers is an updated version of colonial America’s indentured servants. But unlike the originals in the 13 colonies, who gained the right to be free workers after serving the required time bonded to their masters, the latest version of de facto chattel slaves are obligated to pack up and go home, and worse for these church-mouse-poor workers—under their own power and at their own expense!
Now, picture this: Imagine that you are one of those desperately poor workers who had earned minimum wages or below for one or two harvest seasons as legal temps. Another employer offers you a job as a now illegalized worker—but with no time limit. Remember, too, while you’re imagining, that you probably have loved ones in your homeland that depend on you for survival, so that a part of your meager wages must of necessity go to them. Maybe you were ready to bum your way back home, but someone offers you a job as an illegalized worker. Let’s also suppose you ask around to find out what happens if you stay and work illegally and get caught. And you are told that you might not get arrested for some time or maybe ever—depending on how badly the farmers and other employers in the region need cheap and trouble-free workers who don’t dare complain to the authorities if they are cheated or otherwise mistreated.
So what would you do if you were in such a pickle? If you knew that if you stayed and got caught by the immigration cops you’d be picked up and jailed for an uncertain period, but eventually given a free ride home—albeit in handcuffs? The odds heavily favor your grabbing the opportunity of a job that let you feed yourself and your family for a little while…or even a whole lot longer.
That in a nutshell is how the 11 million undocumented workers got here; and it’s how another 11 million will probably get here too, if the present rotten setup is allowed to continue.
Now put yourself in the shoes of one of the many indigenous American workers who are competing for the same jobs doing the same kind of work as the 11 million illegalized workers. Well, if you know your way around trade-union and socialist circles, you understand that the intensified competition means that the wages of all those taking such jobs will tend to decline, according to the capitalist economic law of supply and demand. But you also would know that when the average wage of the lowest-paid workers declines, the wages of all those higher up on the economic ladder will also fall!
Let’s now imagine that you find yourself in the shoes of such a worker, who is also class conscious and militant—as are a very large number of workers born and raised in Mexico or almost any other country south of the border.
If you were this kind of worker, you would know that workers in practically all other countries are far more likely to be class conscious and familiar with what the class struggle is all about. Well, in that case, you would also know that if workers stick together they can win, and would have learned a thing or two about the right and wrong way to organize and fight for your rights. You’d probably follow the example set by at least those 1,000 Smithfield workers in Tar Heel, N.C. who walked and the other 4,000 who would probably have followed if the bosses hadn’t come to terms after the first day.
Nationalism, class consciousness and the working class
Now we come to another lesson that can be learned from the recent events in Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant. We refer to the Latino immigrant majority and the second-largest grouping there, the African American workers—both of whom are oppressed nationalities as well as being doubly exploited and oppressed members of the working class.
Not all nationalisms are the same. In fact, the nationalism of the oppressed and the nationalism of the oppressor are diametrically opposed. But like the slave and the slave owner, the two are organically intertwined. An understanding of the interaction between capitalist exploitation and oppression is the high road to a deeper understanding of the laws of the class struggle in America and the world that were played out in the struggle in Tar Heel, N.C.
It can also be said, however, that there is a difference between how class consciousness is perceived by the two oppressed national minorities, African and Latin American. While African Americans see their superexploitation and oppression as a product of white ideology, Latin American immigrants perceive it as just an extreme expression of the class exploitation and oppression they experienced in their homeland, where they could clearly see it as class-based since they were a part of the ethnic majority and not a minority.
But that’s not all that differentiates the perception of the source of their problem by each of these nationalities. Immigrants from south of the border could clearly see that they suffered social, economic, and political injustices because they were exploited wage workers. Whereas, African Americans, who have never been treated as equals by workers with a lighter skin color, perceive their problem as racial primarily, and class secondarily.
That’s why it was the Latino workers who initiated and led the workers’ rebellion in Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant in North Carolina. But it is to the credit of black workers that they could empathize with the victimization of another superexploited nationality and were among the first to walk out in support of a strike to reinstate the 75 fired workers—with many union-conscious white workers joining because of class, not nationalist solidarity.
But all this is entirely in accord with the inexorable tendency of working people toward class consciousness and class solidarity, irrespective of race, religion, or national origin. It happens to be the most reasonable, logical, and natural response to the divide-and-conquer strategy and tactics of the capitalist class. What’s good for the working class is also in the best interests of all the exploited and oppressed—who together constitute as much as four-fifths or more of the human race.
We need to make one more clarification of where we stand on the question of nationalism. There’s no qualitative difference between the nationalism of the oppressed and the class consciousness of the workers. This is because oppressed nationalities are mostly workers and their superexploitation and double–oppression generates working-class consciousness. It can also be said that the condition of the oppressed in capitalist society is an objective force making them more class conscious than the rest of us.
The outcome of the Smithfield strike inspires an optimistic perspective on the coming rise of mass class consciousness and a militant working class fighting side by side with Latino, black, and all other victims of capitalist social economic and political injustice. This takes us to our final question: What needs to be done to maximize the possibilities opened up by the Smithfield strike victory?
‘The art of politics is knowing what to do next’ 1
We saw a good example of what a high level of class consciousness and class solidarity can produce in the Smithfield strike victory. But we also saw an excellent example of capitalist class consciousness and solidarity on the part of the “executive committee of the capitalist class,” the capitalist owned and controlled United States government!
But what about the executive committee of the working class—the General Executive Boards of both labor federations, the American Federation of Labor, and Change to Win. How did they respond? Not at all like their counterparts in the ruling class. The leaders of both federations pretty much did what the UFCW leadership did when faced by this mortal attack on their union. Unlike the leaders of American capitalism, who ordered their army of Homeland Security cops into action against their class enemy, the workers and their unions, the union officials saw ordering their lawyers to seek injunctions from the courts as “what to do next.”
There’s nothing wrong with using the courts against the system when you can, but if that’s all that the official leaders of the American working class have done or will do, then they have failed the acid test of working-class leadership.
But it’s not too late. Far from it. The job of the left wing of the economic and political institutions of the working class is to get the high and mighty leaders of the unions off their hind ends, to do their duty by their dues-paying members. That is exactly what United Mine Workers president and founding president of the CIO told the official leaders of the AFL and CIO when those bureaucrats failed to mobilize the 32 million members of the labor movement at the time for mass action against what all agreed at the time was the “slave-labor” Taft-Hartley Act.
To be sure, old John Lewis was a high-handed bureaucrat, but he strongly believed in giving union members their money’s worth; and best of all, more often than not, he practiced what he preached.
Who will start building a fire, as hot as possible, under these far-too-comfortable and self-satisfied labor fakers who proudly assert their partnership with corporate America? There is a force that is fully capable of getting such a fire burning, and burning higher and hotter as we go along.
We refer to the tens of thousands of militant trade-union activists, the more worker-friendly bureaucrats, and last but not least, the vanguard of the working class. They must begin working overtime to establish collaborative relations with the rank and file, with the leaders of the Latino and black civil-rights movements, and most importantly, with the already stirring rank and file that recently fought the good fight inside the UAW for a program of class struggle against the ever-increasing capitalist offensive.
1“The art of politics is knowing what to do next.”—James P. Cannon, a working-class fighter and leader who had served his apprenticeship in the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs, the Industrial Workers of the World of Big Bill Haywood and Vincent St. John, and later became a founding leader of the U.S. Communist Party and a founding leader of the Trotskyist, Socialist Workers Party.