Tar Heel Hell: Pigs Over People




A

s
the pleasant aroma of a holiday ham lingers in our memories of celebrations
with friends and family, for workers at the Smithfield pork processing
plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina the odor is anything but pleasant. 


At
Smithfield Food’s plant in the town of Tar Heel, workers say
they know one thing for sure: the company cares more about hogs
than it does about them. One woman tells the story of a coworker
on the processing line who dropped her knife and fell to the floor,
suffering a heart attack. Supervisors were more concerned with keeping
the hogs moving than with the woman’s fate. “We were all
really upset, because we all knew her. You know, we work with her
every day. That really got to me, to see how she was treated, like
they didn’t even care. But watch a hog come through with something
wrong with it, they’ll shut down the whole line and send it
all back.”  


Tar
Heel is a Bladen County town with little more than a couple of gas
stations, a few barbecue joints, and a Mexican grocery. In the midst
of that is the Smithfield plant with  a workforce of around
6,000 employees slaughtering more than 32,000 hogs a day. That’s
16,000 hogs per 8-hour shift; 2,000 per hour; 33 hogs every minute. 


Smithfield,
the largest pork producer in the world, decided to build the plant
in a severely depressed area of the state. Investing in Bladen County
was a boon to the local economy, but Smithfield also may have been
hoping that high unemployment and poverty would produce a workforce
that would bear whatever abuses and indignities were thrown their
way. 


In
2000, the plant came to national attention when it was described
in


the

New York Times

’ Pulitzer Prize-winning
series, “How Race is Lived in America.” Taking a job at
the plant, reporter Charlie LeDuff discovered that, two generations
after the end of legal segregation in the South, race still determines
“who kills, who cuts, and who bosses.” The few whites
working in the plant are mechanics or supervisors; Native American’s
fill supervisory positions or have clean menial jobs; African Americans
and Latinos do the dirty work. 


Three
years later, African Americans are still the majority on the kill
floor, one of the dirtiest jobs in the plant. Latinos are the majority
in the cut and conversion departments, where workers make the same
cuts thousands of times during their eight-hour shifts. In these
departments, injuries are so common they are almost a rite of passage. 


Almost
ten years ago, workers tried to form a union. Campaigns in 1994
and 1997 were met with violence and intimidation by the company.
The 1994 campaign resulted in charges being filed against Smithfield
Foods for violations of the National Labor Relations Act,  including
illegal surveillance, intimidation, threats, coercion, and harassment
of workers. Seven workers were fired for union activity. In 1997,
workers again tried to join the United Food and Commercial Workers
Union and the company waged another anti-union campaign. Management
took employees off their regular jobs to spy on coworkers and report
back to management. Four workers were fired for union activity.
In the end, the union was voted down by nearly a two to one margin. 


LaTasha
Peterson worked in sanitation and was a member of the “A-Team,”
a group of employees who were paid to campaign against the union.
“They needed people like us to tell them who they [the union
supporters] were so they could fire them. They was gonna write them
up so they could get rid of them. They told us to find out who and
they’d handle it,” she testified at the labor board hearings. 


In
December 2000, Judge John H. West found that Smithfield had engaged
in such “egregious and pervasive unfair labor practices and
objectionable conduct” that a fair election was impossible.
In his 436-page opinion, he ruled that workers had been threatened
and interrogated over their union activity, that managers had lied
under oath during the hearing, that the company had told workers
there might be layoffs or the plant could be closed if the union
won and that the union might report undocumented workers to the
U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service if they won the election.
West also found that the 11 fired workers from both union drives
should be rehired and given back pay. 


The
election was overturned, and the judge added that workers were so
intimidated by the company that the next election should be held
outside the plant, perhaps outside the county. Smithfield has appealed
the decision and it could be years before the case is resolved. 


In
another case, a U.S. District Court jury in Raleigh found in March
2002 that Smithfield and the company’s former security chief
violated federal civil rights law and should pay $755,000 to 2 union
supporters who were beaten and arrested on the last day of the 1997
union vote. 


During
its anti-union campaign, the company begged employees for another
chance and promised to fix the problems. They put big-screen TVs
in the cafeterias and handed out watermelons in the parking lot.
They promised more vacation time and better pay. After the elections,
the TVs disappeared and the pay raise never materialized. Workers
who have been at the plant since the beginning say little has changed. 


In
2003, a little scared and very determined, Smithfield employees
were ready to try again. 


On
a warm summer evening in mid-July, I sat with Ruby (not her real
name) under a tree in front of a mobile home she rents on the outskirts
of town.  She’s a grandmother of four who’s worked
at the plant for seven years. “Favoritism is a giant problem”
she said, “They don’t work everybody equal.”  


Allen
is a white man in his 50s who has been at the plant in different
positions for years. He has noticed how favoritism divides workers
in the plant and builds distrust. “There’s so many rules
out there, but they don’t follow them. The company treats everybody
different to keep them apart, to get them mad at each other….
They will let a Mexican get away with something and the others see
it and get mad. Then they’ll let the blacks get away with something
and that gets the Mexicans mad. They divide everybody that way,
but they are just doing it so people don’t come together.” 


Sherri
Buffkin lives in Bladen- boro, not far from the Tar Heel plant,
where she began working in 1992 as an hourly employee in the box
room. By 1997, she had become a division manager and was responsible
for all the plant’s purchasing except the hogs and maintenance
items. She also supervised employees in warehouse and receiving,
laundry, sanitation, building and grounds, and purchasing departments.
She was fired in 1998, shortly after she told company attorneys
that she would not lie in her testimony before the judge who was
investigating Smithfield for unfair labor practices in the 1997
election. 


In
2002, she testified before the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education,
Labor and Pensions Committee in Washington about her part in the
company’s illegal anti-union campaign: “Latinos were seen
as easy targets of manipulation because they could be threatened
with immigration issues. The word was that black workers were going
to be replaced with Latino workers because blacks were more favorable
towards the union.” After defeating the union in 1994 by a
narrow margin, the company began hiring more and more Latinos. In
1995, the workforce at the Tar Heel plant was 50 percent black,
20 percent white and Native American, and 30 percent Latino. Today
60 percent of the workers are Latino, 30 percent African American,
10 per- cent white and Native American. 


As
Buffkin testified, Smithfield has taken advantage of the vulnerability
of immigrant workers in the plant. Like packing plants throughout
the nation, Smithfield is full of undocumented workers. 


In
order to get a job at Smithfield, all applicants must provide proof
of their eligibility to work legally in the United States. Many
immigrants use false documents to get hired. When the company wants
to get rid of them, it starts investigating. Because the majority
of workers are undocumented, the odds favor the company.





Mercedes
is a U.S. citizen. She came to the United States from Mexico in
her early 20s, living with cousins in Los Angeles. When she got
married, she and her husband decided to leave LA. “I arrived
here before most people. When I came to this state there were almost
no Hispanics here. There were probably only 70-80 of us in the plant.
Now there are thousands of Hispanics at Smithfield.” 


“There
are many people who have had accidents in the plant,” Mercedes
said. “They take them to the doctor and take care of them.
Once the person is doing a little better they call them to the office
and even though they may have been working in the plant for six
years they will ask them for their papers. Then they tell them that
their papers are bad and they are fired. I couldn’t tell you
how many times they’ve done this.” 


What
Smithfield is doing is within the boundaries of legal conduct, but
far from what is morally right. The company investigates and enforces
the law when it benefits them, using an employee’s illegal
status to its advantage. In this way, the company shirks responsibility
for the accident, avoids paying workers’ comp, and the injured
worker, limited to light duty, can be replaced by another person
just as disposable as the ones who came before. 


In
the plant, how you are treated also depends on the color of the
hard hat you wear: supervisors wear white hats, crew leaders wear
grey hats, and new hires wear green. One day Mercedes, whose hat
is neither white nor grey, went to throw away some trash she had
collected from the area where she works. On the way back, she passed
two women in the hallway she knew. As they walked by they greeted
each other. Mercedes told them to call her that night and kept walking
back to her place on the line. Then the supervisor accused Mercedes
of abandoning her job to go talk to the two women, assuming that
the women had only stopped talking because they had seen her coming.
Mercedes said they talked only a few seconds, but the supervisor
assumed the worst. Although Mercedes had witnesses who could testify
on her behalf, she didn’t have the opportunity to tell her
side of the story. The supervisor gave her a written warning. 


The
whole situation struck Mercedes as unfair. “I know that I have
rights and that I’m not doing anything bad if one of my coworkers
says, ‘See you tomorrow Mercedes,’ and I answer her, ‘Have
a good night.’ I am one of the hardest working people here.
I do my job well. What the supervisor accused me of is not true,
but because the woman wears a white hard hat on her head, she is
automatically right.… Why? Because she is the supervisor.” 


In
these tough economic times, Latino immigrants are not the only people
in Robeson County who are worried about keeping their jobs. Since
NAFTA was signed in 1994, the county, which was highly dependent
on manufacturing as the base of the local economy, has lost over
8,000 jobs as factories close and move overseas. The unemployment
rate in Robeson County hovers around 11 percent. Job security is
a concern in the minds of many Smithfield employees. 


Because
North Carolina is an Employment-at-Will state, “an employer
can treat its employees as it sees fit and fire them or discipline
them whenever they want, with or without reason,” explained
Jim Taylor of the state Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour
Division. Unless there is a specific law or an employment contract,
like a union contract, providing otherwise, there is no such thing
as job security. 


Manuel
is from Texas, Gabriel is from Missouri, Pedro is from Minnesota,
and Michael and Juan are from Kansas. They are all Latinos, all
meatpacking workers, and all union members in the plants where they
work. In May, they came to North Carolina to join a team of fellow
union members, college students, and professional organizers to
organize a union at Smithfield.  


Gabriel
Saldana is in his mid-20s, but at the plant where he works in Missouri
he is a union steward, the person his coworkers go to when they
have problems. When he first started talking to workers at Smithfield,
he was shocked by how people are treated in the plant, “That’s
probably one of the biggest differences between my plant and Smithfield.
The people at my plant get more respect because they know if they
yell at you and curse you out they know that they can’t get
away with it. Here there is no one to go to….  In a union
plant you have someone like me that you can tell and they can do
something about it.” 


At
the end of the day it will be the workers, not the organizers, who
will decide whether to unionize. It is my hope that when election
day comes, enough people around the country will be watching what
is happening in the small town of Tar Heel that the company will
not repeat the dirty tricks of the last election. People will be
able to go to the ballot box and cast their votes with hearts full
of hope, not fear. When that day comes, the workers will already
have won

.










Hope
Bastian is a college student who has worked on union organizing
campaigns in rural North Carolina.