North Carolina Smithfield Workers
Win Against the Odds
Close to 1,000 Smithfield Packing Co. workers walked off the job here Nov. 16 to protest illegal firings, and they won against big odds. It was a truly remarkable action by non-union workers, many undocumented, in a rural area, in a state with a “right-to-work” (for less) law, with one of the most notorious anti-union environments in the country. And it was at a company that illegally fired union supporters in an organizing drive in 1994 and then harassed and beat up union supporters in another attempted union drive in 1997.
Eduardo Pena, from the Eastern North Carolina Workers Center and an organizer for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), has been working with the Smithfield workers. He believes that in many ways the workers won the minute they walked out.
Unlike in previous years, instead of being met with violence and intimidation by the company, the workers rallied peacefully on company property, in the parking lot immediately in front of the plant. They even set up a sound system and used electricity from the main building.
“This is ‘protected’ union activity,” said Pena, “and this time the company was forced to recognize the workers’ rights. Because the workers have stuck together and because there are so many legal and Labor Board charges pending from past illegal anti-union activities, the company is being very careful.”
Many workers, even those still going into the plant to work, were wearing bright yellow “Justice @ Smithfield” T-shirts.
The walkout was sparked when Smithfield fired as many as 75 workers because they had received “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration (SSA). “No-match” letters tell the company that an employee’s Social Security number does not match the name or some other information on record. Smithfield said they didn’t want to fire anyone but were forced to by the no-match letters. The UFCW pointed out that not only was the company not required to fire workers, but the SSA specifically states that these letters cannot be used to fire workers. Smithfield had sent out as many as 600 of the letters about two weeks prior to the walkout, all targeting workers with Spanish last names, and wound up firing 75 of them.
Keith Ludlum, who works in the plant’s livestock department, is one of those fired in the 1994 union drive. He was recently reinstated by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling and returned to work at Smithfield to continue his efforts to organize the union. He was one of those who walked out Nov. 16. The letters were just the spark, he said.
There is a tremendous backlog of resentment and frustration on the part of all the workers over a wide range of issues from health and safety violations to speed-up and working conditions, Ludlum said. “The joke in the plant is that the hogs have more rights than the workers do. They have the protection of the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] and we have none without the union.”
He noted that those who walked out were not only Latinos but also included many African American and white workers. Workers said that young Latino women played a special role in organizing and leading the walkout.
Robert Dixon, who also works in the livestock department, told the World that workers in the plant, even those afraid to come out, were fully supporting the walkout. The company is “so heartless and mean that we all have stories of brutality and injustice,” he said.
Dixon’s fiancée had gotten very sick and he had to drive her back and forth to the doctor. The company gave him disciplinary points against his record for every time he had to leave work early or come in late. Smithfield said she was only a fiancée and not really a family member. Then, when she died from her illness, they gave him points for attending her funeral. “We all support the Latinos,” he said, “and we all have our own reasons for wanting a union here.”
The UFCW is quick to point out that the walkout was led by workers on the shop floor, not union organizers. “We are here to support them in any way we can,” said Gene Bruskin, UFCW director of organizing, “but they are doing the planning and making all the decisions.” So much so that, reminiscent of the tactics used in the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, the workers let a rumor get back to the company that they were planning to walk out on Friday. Then they walked out a day early to catch the company unprepared. Ludlum said that the company was stunned that the Latinos would walk out. “They were certain that they were scared and intimidated by the ‘no-match’ letters.”
Between 500 and 1,000 workers from both first and second shifts stayed in the parking lot all day on Thursday, Nov. 16, and until late at night on Friday, Nov. 17. Thursday night, about 40 of the strike leaders met to plan their strategy and demands. They got help from the UFCW and from the Catholic Archdiocese, and prepared a list of demands that included: No retaliation or disciplinary action against those who walked out. Stop using the “no-match” letters to fire workers. Reinstate all the fired workers.
On Friday things were jumping. A meeting to bargain a solution was set for 4 p.m., but the company jumped around and kept changing its mind about who it would sit down with to resolve the crisis. Many of the workers felt the company was waiting to see if they would break ranks and return to work on their own. Production in the plant was crippled.
Meanwhile, a worker who had heard about the walkout on the news, and who had been fired himself from a Smithfield distribution center in Clayton, N.C., drove to Tar Heel to join the walkout. He reported to the rallied workers that Smithfield had fired five people in Clayton the same way. He also reported to great cheering that his distribution center normally got about 40 trucks of pork a day from the Tar Heel plant and on Thursday had only gotten three. Supporters still in the plant said production was down to one line running much slower than usual.
Friday evening things got even tenser. The crowd in the parking lot swelled as second shift workers joined in and expectations rose. It was a long day, as most of the workers who walked out had been in the parking lot since 5 a.m. Finally at around 8:30 p.m. a great uproar rang out from in front of the plant. The workers had won.
Smithfield agreed to increase the time allowed for employees to respond to “no-match” letters. Employees who had been fired for failure to resolve Social Security issues can return to work while the issues are sorted out. There is to be no more firing. Smithfield’s Human Resources Department will designate a staff member to help process “no-match” Social Security issues and respond to questions. No disciplinary actions of any kind will be taken against those employees who participated in the walkout. And most important of all, Smithfield agreed to meet with a 14-member committee elected by the workers on the basis of one per department from both shifts to deal with concerns raised by the workers.
A young Latino worker leaving the plant summed it up nicely: “We won and we’ll keep on winning until we get the union.”
—People’s Weekly World, November 26, 2006