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Smithfield Workers Win Demands after Walkout Halts Production at Tar Heel Plant

Posted to the IUF website 20-Nov-2006

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Several hundred mostly immigrant workers participated in a spontaneous walkout between November 16-17 that halted production at the world's biggest pork processing plant. Meat transnational Smithfield Foods, which has been fiercely opposing union organization at the plant, owns the facility which is located in Tar Heel, North Carolina. Workers resumed operations on November 18, after Smithfield agreed for the first time ever to meet with a group of elected workers representatives and to negotiate employee demands.

As management refused to deal with the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) – the union which represents 13,500 Smithfield employees in the USA and Canada - representatives of the Catholic church brought in their attorneys and provided mediation. Religious groups are key members of the Smithfield Justice Campaign , a coalition of immigrant, civil, labour rights organizations and student groups supporting the Tar Heel workers' struggle for union recognition.

The protest was triggered by disagreement between the workers and the company about Smithfield’s improper use of social security data to wrongfully terminate employees. In other Smithfield operations where workers are represented by the UFCW, collective agreements provide for a systematic and constructive process for workers and employers to resolve these issues. Tar Heel workers have been struggling to obtain the protection of a negotiated agreement for more than a decade.

The company acknowledged that they had misinterpreted the law and agreed to the workers demands, including a time extension to respond to the alleged irregularities in employee social security numbers, the rehiring of unfairly terminated workers and a commitment not to retaliate against those who took part in the walkout.

The plant employs 5,500 workers and processes 32,000 hogs a day at the speed of one hog every 3-4 seconds, resulting in dramatically high rates of crippling injuries. The firings which set off the walkout were simply the latest episode in a history of inhumane, dangerous and degrading work conditions Smithfield Tar Heel workers have endured for more than a decade.

The National Labor Relations Board (the federal agency responsible foroverseeing labour relations in the USA) has found that Smithfield illegally used the threat of arrest by federal immigration authorities to intimidate workers andhas used intimidation, threats of discharge, and violence against workers during union election campaigns. A 2004 report by Human Rights Watch denounced the unacceptable health and safety conditions at the plant, as well as the practice of denying compensation and medical care to workers in case of accident.

The strike coincided with a peak of activism at the facility and occurred some months after the launch of the Smithfield Justice Campaign. "What is needed is a permanent solution to their problems, which can only be union representation at the plant and a negotiated collective agreement", says Gene Bruskin, UFCW Director of the Smithfield Campaign.

This first victory at Smithfield Tar Heel demonstrates that collective action works. Although the fired workers were largely Hispanic immigrants, their black and white colleagues supported the walkout. The workers distributed handbills together explaining their demands. The Smithfield Justice Campaign generated broad support in the US and internationally.

On July 26, the Tar Heel workers' struggle echoed throughout Smithfield's operations in Poland, France and Spain, where European workers and their unions held an International Union Day of Action in solidarity with their colleagues at Tar Heel. In Europe, this action was co-ordinated by the IUF.

To read the related article, click here.

Although a battle is won, the Tar Heel workers' struggle to organize and negotiate with Smithfield management continues. Its outcome is critical for the growing number of Smithfield workers worldwide.

Smithfield is the largest hog producer in the world and the fifth largest beef producer in the United States, and is emerging as one of the key players in consolidating the global meat packing industry. With sales of USD11bn in 2005, the company is currently rationalizing its domestic and international operations and investing in new joint ventures, acquisitions and greenfield plants.

In the USA, Smithfield is closing a number of small- and medium-sized plants whose production is partially being transferred either to Tar Heel or to the new USD100m cooked ham plant in Kinson, North Carolina, which employs 300 workers since opening on November 2. Last August, Smithfield purchased ConAgra Foods branded meats business, thereby acquiring Butterball turkey to become the fourth largest turkey producer in the US.

Just one month earlier, Smithfield had acquired Sara Lee's European meats division for $575 million in a 50% joint venture with the private equity Oaktree Capital, bringing in 6,000 workers scattered among Belgium, France, the Netherlands, the UK, Portugal and Italy. Sara Lee Meats has been added to Smithfield's French "Jean Caby" operations and both acquisitions are now running under the common name "Groupe Smithfield".

Smithfield is currently seeking expansion in Eastern Europe, where it already owns extensive facilities in Poland (Animex, Morliny) and Romania (Comtim, Agrotorvis) and is pursuing vertical integration. The company intends to move up the value-added chain of its manufactured products in Western countries, shifting from raw and semi-processed output to luncheon meats, ready meals and deli products to capture additional profit margins. Conversely, Smithfield views Eastern Europe as an opportunity for abundant land and cheap labour, big local markets and a platform to access the EU common market. Poland and Romania already service Smithfield's expanding export markets that include Japan and Korea. The company is actively lobbying the Chinese government to open up its market to meat imports. Smithfield also owns joint ventures in Mexico, Brazil and China.

Despite its growing presence in the EU Smithfield has to date failed to respond to the repeated demands from European unions to negotiate a European Works Council, as required by European legislation.