Hundreds of workers–Black, white and Latino–rush in and out of the parking lot at the Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, N.C., during an afternoon shift change. Some come in vans that Smithfield provides to bring in workers from outlying areas. Some travel all the way from South Carolina.
In this rural area, a worker can go many miles before they find another major employer, explained Emma Herrera, executive director of the United Food and Commercial Workers' (UFCW) Eastern North Carolina Workers Center in Red Springs, about 20 minutes away from Tar Heel. "And in this little town, everything is related to Smithfield," she said.
In May, the U.S. Justice Department approved Smithfield's $800 million buyout of Premium Standard Farms–joining together the two largest pork producers in the U.S. With some 5,500 workers, the pork-processing operation in Tar Heel is one of the most profitable slaughterhouses in the world.
"Over the past few years, they have been gobbling up other processors," said Keith Ludlum, who works in the livestock department. "Last year, they bought three or four other competitors. They are becoming Boss Hog."
In its race to increase profits, workers' safety has always taken a backseat at Smithfield. Across the highway from the Tar Heel plant is a small building called the Smithfield Medical Center.
"A lot of people driving by on the highway might think, man, this is great that the plant has a medical center right across the street, but it's not for the convenience of the workers," said Ludlum. "It's for the convenience of Smithfield where they're able to maintain their own doctors and medical facility.
"They control the doctors, so the doctors limit the care that the workers are given when they're hurt on the job, and also diagnose the problems as not being job-related and get them back to work a lot quicker, so they don't incur any lost workdays under OSHA law. With the number of surrounding hospitals in the area, there's no need for the medical center, other than to manage and control the injuries, and also it keeps them from being embarrassed like they have been in the past."
A woman waiting in a truck in the parking lot said that this wasn't her first time at the center. Her husband had been there a couple times over the last few years, once for injuries as a result of repetitive motion, and another time when his leg was broken.
Some of the most common injuries, says Ludlum, are "people getting run over by automatics jacks, getting leg injuries. In the chitterling area, some of the most prominent injuries are the separation of fingernails from the hands due to infections. And also joint injuries through shoulders and elbows from repetitive motion.
"You have extreme colds and extreme heats. There are plenty of employees that have gotten frostbite on their feet and hands just from working in the freezer areas for so long."
Disregard for workers at Smithfield is well documented–Human Rights Watch produced a report in 2005 titled Blood, Sweat and Fear, enumerating the company's abuses.
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BUT MORE recently, Smithfield has become known for something else–its workers organizing for justice on the job.
Over its entire history, Smithfield has blocked workers' attempts to win a union. Ludlum, like several other workers, was fired in 1994 for his involvement in a UFCW union organizing drive.
Smithfield has used every trick in the book to keep out a union–not the least of which is pitting workers against one another along racial lines. More recently, the company has used the threat of deportation to try to keep its immigrant workforce from organizing for their rights.
In the face of this, however, immigrant workers have helped lead the way toward pushing back Smithfield's assault. In November, some 1,000 workers walked out for two days in support of 75 immigrant workers fired by Smithfield for supposedly using Social Security numbers that didn't match federal government data. The workers won their jobs back.
In January, 500 workers stayed away from work or walked off the job to protest the fact that Smithfield–with a 40 percent African American workforce–doesn't consider Martin Luther King Day a holiday.
In late January, Smithfield hit back at immigrant workers with a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents that ended in the arrest and detention of 21 workers.
"I feel it was a pre-planned, purposeful raid that Smithfield coordinated with ICE due to the fact that the Latino workforce had stood up and conducted a walkout for two days in November," said Ludlum. "Smithfield had ICE come to the plant; they then escorted a list of 21 employees to the office, and ICE was there undercover–it was all really covert. They didn't want the other employees to know that they were there."
The Latino workforce didn't come to work that night, or the next day. That evening, said Ludlum, Smithfield announced on area Spanish-speaking radio stations that the immigration agents were gone, and workers should return to work.
"To me," Ludlum said, "that shows the amount of guilt that these corporations have. They've used and abused the immigrant workforce. But when immigrants start to stand up for themselves, the companies will start enforcing the laws to their benefit and try to instill fear in that workforce."
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WITH AN infusion of new hires to replace the immigrant workers–many of whom had worked at Smithfield some 10 years or more–in addition to the usual high turnover rate at the plant, the work is harder than ever.
"The injury rates have increased because you have so many inexperienced workers," said Ludlum. "Some workers don't even make it to their first break. That was the original reason why Smithfield had to bring in the immigrant workforce–because they had used up and abused so much of the local American-born workers that they had to find a resource.
"Many of the supporters in the African American community were strong supporters of having a union. Smithfield thought of bringing in an immigrant workforce that they felt wouldn't stand up for their rights."
They were wrong. Now, says Herrera, "a lot of workers quit, so who's doing the production–the ones in there now who are doing two jobs, three jobs at the same time. Now they really need a union because no one is going to protect them. Workers inside the plant are doing actions in every single department, and are drawing their own conclusions," said Herrera.
Activists like Ludlum are thinking of ways to develop solidarity at work and help build up the confidence of workers. He and some coworkers circulated a petition asking for three basic improvements that had been needed since the plant opened–clean drinking water on the line, properly operating gates since the existing ones are causing back strain and injuries, and hot water with soap in the washrooms.
"We got a petition together, and we knew we would get a lot of support, but we ended up getting 100 percent of the employees, even the ones that weren't pro-union, because these were basic needs," Ludlum explained.
Smithfield refused to accept the workers' petition, but said it appreciated the problems being brought to their attention, and told workers to meet with Human Resources to sort out the problems. "I said, that's a lot of lip service when you guys can't supply clean drinking water to your employees after 14 years of operation," Ludlum said.
Workers are demanding that the plant manager meet with the group. At the same time, workers have asked churches and religious groups to put pressure on management to meet with workers.
"It's shown that when workers come together, they get a lot more done than they do on an individual basis," said Ludlum. The struggle for justice for Smithfield workers is not over–both inside and outside the plant's walls.
This article was originally published by Socialist Worker.