Smithfield Foods’ Rotten Record
In November, an estimated 1,000 workers at the Smithfield pork processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C., walked off the job in a two-day wildcat strike. The walkout was prompted by the firing of 75 workers when management claimed their Social Security numbers didn’t match federal government data. The workers went back on the job after winning significant concessions, including a 60-day period for workers receiving “no-match” letters to secure their documentation.
But the fight for justice at Smithfield is far from over.
In March, Smithfield Foods was named -- for the fourth consecutive year -- one of “America’s Most Admired Companies” by Fortune magazine. Fortune said it made its rankings after polling “10,000 executives, directors and security analysts.”
For sure, they didn’t ask Smithfield workers for their opinion.
There’s no doubt that Smithfield knows how to make money. The Tar Heel plant is the largest -- and one of the most profitable -- pork slaughterhouses in the world. Approximately 32,000 hogs a day are slaughtered -- one every two seconds on each eight-hour shift. In fiscal year 2006, Smithfield’s worldwide operations generated sales of $11.4 billion and net profits of $172.7 million. Those profits, according to workers, union activists and human rights organizations, are built on a continued legacy of brutal conditions -- including low wages, long hours, few benefits, dangerous working conditions, anti-union harassment and management-fostered racism.
According to the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the base wage for workers at the nonunion Tar Heel plant is just $8.60 an hour for some of the most dangerous work in the country -- and Smithfield has a reported yearly turnover rate of nearly 100 percent.
Keith Ludlum, who has worked the livestock line at the Tar Heel plant since July, and also worked there for seven months in 1994 before being fired for pro-union activity, described his workday in an interview.
“Those of us in livestock report to work at a quarter to six and get started running hogs up into the kill floor of the plant,” he said. “Of course, livestock is extremely messy, and it’s made even worse because they’ve got drains in the pen area and where the hogs are stored at, which they refuse to unclog.
“So you get a pool of hog feces and urine and water building up, and that gets splashed on you when you’re running the hogs up into the plant... There’s constantly people getting hurt there. Every day, there are people getting hurt all over the plant.”
The pace on the kill and cut floors is incredibly fast. In 1999, during an unfair labor practices trial, one Tar Heel plant manager testified that from the point at which a hog is first “stuck,” or bled, to the point that its hair and viscera are completely removed, the fat pulled from its carcass and the animal flash-frozen is “between 5 and 10 minutes, depending on if [the line] was backed up.” The remaining work of removing the skin and dismembering the animal into hams, loins, ribs and other cuts takes place in just five or six minutes more.
As Lance Compa and Jamie Fellner of Human Rights Watch wrote in an editorial last year, “‘Faster, faster, get that product out the door!’ is the industry byword. The results are cuts, amputations, skin disease, permanent arm and shoulder damage, and even death from the force of repeated hard cutting motions. When injured employees seek workers' compensation claims for their injuries, they are told, ‘You got hurt at home, not on the job.’”
One Smithfield worker described the brutal pace of work in an interview with Human Rights Watch in 2003: “The line is so fast that there is no time to sharpen the knife. The knife gets dull, and you have to cut harder. That’s when it really starts to hurt, and that’s when you cut yourself.
“I cut my hand at the end of my shift, around 10:30 at night... I went to the clinic the next day at 11 a.m. They gave me stitches and told me to come back at 2:30, before the start of my shift to check on the stitches. They told me to go back to work at 3 p.m. I never stopped working.”
According to Keith Ludlum, when an injury occurs on the livestock line, “[management] simply tells you to keep running the hogs. They want to keep their production up. “There are tripping hazards and things that they could correct. They choose not to, because they’d have to spend money, and it would also slow down their production.”
“The company basically has an assembly line set up,” he says, “and the human beings are treated like machines. They’re sitting there for eight hours a day, and they don’t even have the chance to wipe their brow, because they’re covered in hog feces or blood. They’re drinking from water coolers that other workers have been at who are covered in hog feces and hog blood. They’re hard working people, and they are being abused and mistreated.”
This disregard for workers’ safety has had deadly consequences at Smithfield. In November 2003, 25-year-old Glen Birdsong was killed after being exposed to fumes from a vat of pig mucosa mixed with sodium bisulfite.
According to “Blood, Sweat and Fear,” a 2005 report from Human Rights Watch detailing abuses in the packing industry, coworkers of Birdsong reported that management “didn’t tell him about the dangers, and they didn’t give him a safety belt to get pulled out of there in case he fell in.”
Smithfield was cited for safety violations, but the North Carolina Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined Smithfield just $4,323 for Birdsong’s death -- and later applied a 25 percent “discount” to the fine for the company’s “basic” health and safety program, and another 10 percent discount for “minimal employer disruption” of the state’s inspection of the site.
Smithfield has an extensive anti-union history as well, which has often descended into physical intimidation.
According to Ludlum, the management’s reaction to a UFCW organizing drive in 1994 “was extremely violent. It was a stress on the workers. The company would constantly harass and interrogate workers who were pro-union. Many workers like myself were fired or forced to quit... Every time workers have tried to stand up for their rights, they’ve been beat down, arrested and their rights are violated.”
According to ”Blood, Sweat and Fear,” during a 1997 union organizing campaign, management orchestrated an assault on and the arrest of union supporters, in which local police beat, maced, handcuffed and arrested supporters of the organizing campaign.
Smithfield’s director of security at the time, Daniel Priest, also held a position as a local deputy sheriff -- and was later found guilty of violating the “Ku Klux Klan Act” for spitting at, beating, arresting and using racial epithets against union supporters.
Moreover, until 2005, Smithfield was allowed under a special state law to maintain its own private police force and a special holding cell on site at the Tar Heel plant. Smithfield officers were allowed to carry company-issued guns and bullets, as well as concealed weapons.
Workers and union activists say that the Smithfield company police were there to intimidate workers who stand up for their rights. In 2003 and 2004, for example, Smithfield posted armed police in the plant, saying it had received bomb threats.
“It’s all part of the anti-union campaign to intimidate us and turn the plant into an armed camp,” one worker told Human Rights Watch at the time. “For those of us from Central America, it is especially frightening, because where we come from, the police shoot trade unionists.”
Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant runs primarily off the labor of minority workers. More than half of the workforce is Latino, many of whom are recent immigrants, and nearly 40 percent is African American.
Smithfield management has a long history of pitting workers against each other along racial lines.
New York Times reporter Charlie LeDuff, who went undercover at the plant in 2000, described the makeup of the company: “Whites, Blacks, American Indians and Mexicans, they all have their separate stations. The few whites on the payroll tend to be mechanics or supervisors. As for the Indians, a handful are supervisors; others tend to get clean menial jobs like warehouse work.
“With few exceptions, that leaves the Blacks and Mexicans with the dirty jobs at the factory, one of the only places within a 50-mile radius in this muddy corner of North Carolina where a person might make more than $8 an hour.”
According to “Blood, Sweat and Fear,” during the 1997 union drive, “Anti-union consultants told Latino workers that the union was dominated by Black workers, and that the organizing drive was really an effort by African-Americans -- the majority of employees at the plant [at that time] -- to get rid of Latino workers and take all the jobs for Black people. They told the reverse to Black workers.
Management is still at it -- as its response to the recent wildcat strike shows, according to Emma Herrera, executive director of the UFCW’s Eastern North Carolina Workers Center in Red Springs.
“What happened two weeks ago was that it was mostly Latinos who walked out,” Herrera said. “The rumor inside the next day [was that management] was saying, ‘The Blacks are going to do the next strike, because they want all the Latinos out.’ That comes from the company. They put that out against the workers.”
Despite the concessions won by the wildcat -- including a halt to the wholesale firing of workers with “no-match” discrepancies -- Herrera predicts that the issue could spur future walkouts and organizing in the coming weeks.
Herrera says she has been receiving calls from Puerto Rican employees who also received letters from Smithfield about their immigration status. “But they are Puerto Ricans -- they are American citizens,” she said. “My question is: did the company really check the numbers and the names? What’s going on? Is this racism and discrimination because they are Latinos?”
“I believe that they want to punish the workers,” Herrera said. “They want to give them less, and let the company have the first word and the last word.”
Still, said Herrera, the walkout at Tar Heel is significant because there was support for Latino workers among other workers at the plant. “I think right now, the workers are at a point where they’re together,” Herrera said. “They know from now on that they have to do it together. And they’ve been doing it, but the company has been working hard to divide the groups inside.
“Workers before that weren’t sure about the union have learned now that they have to do something together.”
Nicole Colson writes for Socialist Worker. This article first appeared on the SW website. Thanks to Alan Maass.
What else to read
For updates and information on the UFCW’s campaign at Smithfield, including actions you can take in your community, see the Justice at Smithfield Web site.
The Human Rights Watch report “Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants” details abuses at the Smithfield Tar Heel plant, as well as in other meat and poultry plants across the U.S.
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