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Smithfield workers demand "justicia"
Wildcat walkout in North Carolina

December 1, 2006 | Page 11

NICOLE COLSON reports on the two-day walkout of workers at a Smithfield Foods plant in North Carolina.

AN ESTIMATED 1,000 workers walked off the job at a nonunion meatpacking plant in Tar Heel, N.C., after 75 employees were fired in a management attack on immigrants.

The wildcat lasted two days and ended in significant concessions by Smithfield Foods officials--including reinstatement of at least some fired workers and a promise of no retaliation against workers who participated in the action.

The walkout was sparked when Smithfield fired 75 workers because, management said, their Social Security numbers didn't match federal government data. So-called "no-match" discrepancies between Social Security numbers provided by workers and those on file with the Social Security Administration are being used as a justification to fire workers across the country--the assumption being that those whose numbers don't match are undocumented immigrants.

What else to read

For updates and information on the UFCW's campaign at Smithfield, including actions you can take in your community, visit the Justice at Smithfield Web site.

Human Rights Watch's 2005 report "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants," details abuses at Smithfield's Tar Heel plant, as well as other meat and poultry plants across the U.S.

 

At Smithfield, about 100 workers were called in to verify their information, and 75--including some who reportedly had legal work permits and visas, as well as those who may be undocumented--were fired.

That prompted a wave of outrage among the company's largely immigrant workforce. Shouts of "Justicia!" were heard as workers began to walk off the production line. As the walkout continued through the second shift, hundreds gathered in the company parking lot, some with handmade signs reading, "No more abuse" and "We want justice."

Margarita Vazquez told the Fayetteville Observer that she walked out because of the verbal abuse that Latino workers are forced to endure. Describing how plant supervisors demand Latinos work harder and faster than other workers, Vazquez said, "We are not animals, we are people."

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ACCORDING TO the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union--which has carried out several organizing drives at the plant, and which supported but did not organize the walkout--about 1,000 workers, nearly 20 percent of the 5,500-strong Tar Heel workforce, participated.

Many more employees were sympathetic. "We know for sure, because we've had many conversations, that inside the plant, there are about 2,500 to 3,000 immigrant workers, and all of them are very concerned about this," Gene Bruskin, a UFCW representative and director of the union's Smithfield campaign organizing, said in an interview. "And many of the African American workers are very supportive.

"It didn't mean everybody joined the walkout, because the walkout was spontaneous, and a lot of people didn't understand it. The company was walking around the plant telling the African American workers, 'You don't need to support this because these people are just a bunch of liars. We'd be fined and have to go out of business if we don't fire them.'"

In fact, on the first day of the walkout, company spokesperson Dennis Pittman addressed workers who had gathered outside the plant, telling them through a translator that the company had no choice--it was either fire the workers or wait for a raid from the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). "I hope you understand we'd be breaking the law if we don't do this," he said.

But Bruskin said Smithfield voluntarily enrolled in the "no-match" program, known as "IMAGE" (ICE Mutual Agreement Between Government and Employers).

"Our perspective is that the company has operated with a mixture of African American and immigrant workers for years, and some of the people that they fired have been working there for six, seven, eight, 10 years," Bruskin said. "It's just an outrage that somebody could work in that plant, under those horrible conditions, be a good worker, do what they're told for 10 years, and then the company enrolls in some program with ICE and interprets it to mean they've got to fire these people."

"We're looking into the details of legality," Bruskin continued, "but the fact of the matter is that the company has used the immigration issue against workers repeatedly over the years, and it's been found to have done so by the National Labor Relations Board and by the courts.

"When workers tried to organize, they threatened to call immigration on them. As a matter of fact, they do that in between union organizing drives. There's just sort of a general buzz that if you get involved with the union, you'll lose your job. So Smithfield's credibility on this issue is next to zero."

Bruskin says that the firings weren't necessarily directed at union supporters. But, he said, "there's broad support in that plant for a union, so many union supporters were included. "I think that the biggest impact is that it has a huge chilling effect. You're getting involved in standing up for your rights and taking big risks, and all of a sudden, now everything is up in the air--you can be fired, you can be deported."

"The company is not unaware of that impact," Bruskin said, "because they've used that tactic in the past. At the expense of their loyal workers, Smithfield is trying to look good to the immigration authorities, and say, 'Look, we're cleaning up our act.'

"But it's another example of employers in this country who want to have it both ways. They want to be able to hire immigrant workers. They want to be able to exploit them. They want to be able to keep their wages down. And then they want to be able to dump them whenever it's convenient--and it's just wrong."

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SMITHFIELD'S TAR Heel plant is the largest and one of the most profitable pork slaughterhouses in the world.

The plant's 5,500 workers are paid low wages for enduring grueling hours and some of the most dangerous conditions of any U.S. workplace. As many as 32,000 hogs a day are slaughtered at the plant--one every two seconds on each eight-hour shift.

Among the allegations that have surfaced about the Smithfield Tar Heel plant are continued dangerous and dirty conditions, rampant underreporting of workplace injuries, sexual harassment of female employees and a years-long anti-union campaign, complete with physical intimidation.

Management has counted on whipping up racism to try to divide the workforce. According to "Blood, Sweat and Fear," a 2005 Human Rights Watch report detailing abuses in the packing industry, during a 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.

"Smithfield supervisor Sherri Bufkin confirmed the systematic use of such tactics in connection with the earlier election in the Tar Heel plant. She told a congressional committee looking into organizing abuses: 'Smithfield keeps Black and Latino employees virtually separated in the plant, with the Black workers on the kill floor and the Latinos in the cut and conversion departments.'"

Yet despite this legacy, says Bruskin, this month's walkout had clear multiracial support. "There were Black workers standing out there the whole time for two days," he said. "We had a meeting after the first night with about 50 leaders who wanted to meet and talk about what they were doing, and about 15 or 20 of them were African American. That's really significant."

The two-day walkout at the Tar Heel plant gained some notable concessions from management, but according to Bruskin, the fight is far from over.

"They haven't retaliated so far," he said, "but whether they will thoroughly revisit their policy or not, we don't know. They're definitely giving people more time, and some of the people who have been fired in a rush have been brought back. And the company did meet with a group of elected workers to discuss this, but the workers were dissatisfied with that meeting. It felt like the company didn't take them seriously. So we may just have put this fight off for a month."

With the Department of Homeland Security threatening to ramp up the no-match system in the coming months, workers in Tar Heel have set an inspiring example for the whole labor movement to live up to.

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