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Uniting Food, Farm and Hotel Workers World-Wide


International Union Day of Action in Solidarity with Workers at Smithfield's Tar Heel plant

Posted to the IUF website 15-Aug-2006

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On July 26 workers at Smithfield and Campofrío (24% Smithfield-owned) unionized facilities in Europe and the United States stood together in solidarity with the struggle for justice for the 5,500 workers employed at Smithfield's largest plant located in Tar Heel, North Carolina, USA.

Participating organisations included IUF affiliates FGA-CFDT and FGTA-FO in France, NSZZ "Solidarnosc" in Poland; CC. OO. and UGT in Spain, in addition to eleven UFCW Locals which conducted actions at Smithfield plants in South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Maryland, Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Missouri, Georgia, Kansas and Ohio. The IUF coordinated the action in Europe.

Tar Heel, the world's largest hog facility, processing 32,000 hogs a day, is a modern sweatshop where an extremely vulnerable workforce - mainly immigrants from Latin America and African-Americans – has been the systematically exploited and abused for more than ten years. Smithfield has been resisting IUF affiliate UFCW's efforts to organize the plant since it first opened over ten years ago. In doing so, Smithfield management has not hesitated to resort to methods that earned it two adverse rulings of the National Board of Labour Relations (the US Federal Agency in charge of the implementation of US federal labour law) for gross human and workers' rights violations. The record includes threats of plant closure, threats to arrest by federal immigration authorities to have workers arrested by federal immigration authorities if they voted for a union, intimidation and illegal dismissals of employees involved in the organising effort and the beating of a worker beaten engagedin union activities.

The UFCW has recently revived its nation-wide Smithfield Justice Campaign , which aims to organize the Tar Heel plant and halt the abuse of its workers. As part of the campaign, the UFCW requested assistance from the IUF and from key European allies to raise awareness and support for Tar Heel workers among the colleagues employed in Smithfield's international operations. The initiative took the form of an International Union Day of Solidarity during which simultaneous educational activities were carried out at plant level by all involved unions in the different countries hosting Smithfield's major operations in Europe and in the USA.

In the USA, UFCW members at Smithfield's unionized plants distributed flyers, organised rallies and wore UFCW "Justice @ Smithfield" shirts and "I work for Smithfield" stickers on their uniforms and work helmets, to emphasise that workers at all Smithfield's subsidiaries – despite different plant and brand names – all work for the same employer.

European unions handed out leaflets to workers at every shift and showed or gave out individual copies of a video telling the Tar Heel story. In Europe, where the issue was relatively less known, workers were very receptive. The video was very much in demand and workers actively passed their copies to colleagues. A majority of Smithfield and Campofrío workers across Europe are now familiar with the situation at Tar Heel. From French and Polish plants to Campofrio's main facility in Spain, European workers were shocked to learn how Smithfield – their employer or major investor in their company - treats workers in North Carolina and could hardly believe this was happening in the USA.

European unions raised the issue with their management, handing in letters that urged Smithfield Foods to swiftly remedy this unacceptable situation at its largest plant. The letters also expressed the concern that - at a time when Smithfield Foods is seeking strategic expansion in the European market through strings of acquisitions (Sara Lee Meats) or by upgrading existing investment (Comtim Romania) - the inexcusable abuses committed at the Tar Heel facility jeopardised the company's reputation and had the potential to negatively impact Smithfield's operations and workers in Europe.

The account of the terrible labour conditions at Tar Heel underscores the urgent need for a union at the plant to bring dignity to these workers, whose wages are substantially less than the average at Smithfield's unionised operations in the United States. The high toll of injuries and accidents is testimony to the dizzying line speed which sees one hog processed every three or four seconds.

The simultaneous activities conducted by 6 unions at 22 Smithfield and Campofrío plants in 4 different countries represent a first step which demonstrated to Smithfield management that both American and European unions believe that all Smithfield workers - no matter the country of operation or their subsidiary's name - deserve to be treated with the same dignity and respect. They demand that Smithfield accept the right of the Tar Heel workers to enjoy the same collective bargaining rights that Smithfield workers enjoy at many other plants in Europe and in the USA. All participating unions were united in expressing their readiness to provide further support to the struggle if needed and that this first awareness-raising action was just a start.