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Tar Heel Pinkertons

Smithfield Foods is anti-union in the worst way.

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Justice @ Smithfield campaigners held their first public forum Thursday night at Pullen Baptist Church in Raleigh, and their star witness was Manuel Plancarte, ex-manager on the overnight cleaning crew at the Smithfield Foods hog packing plant in Tar Heel, Bladen County. Plancarte speaks Spanish, and the translator's English version of what he said was pretty sketchy, but in outline it was clear enough: The cleaning crew, virtually all Hispanic men, walked out one night in November 2003 over issues of pay, working conditions and the fact that some of their leaders had just been fired; when they did, they were threatened, pushed around and beaten up (in some cases) by Smithfield Special Police Chief Danny Priest and other members of the company's armed private police department.

No, I don't mean the security guards. (The company has them, too.) Come to find out, Smithfield's hog plant, where as many as 34,000 hogs meet their piggly maker every day and are then "cut" and "converted" for your eating enjoyment, has its very own "special police force," which is separate from--though Chief Priest is also a deputy in--the Bladen County Sheriff's Office.

It's like something out of the days of the union-busting Pinkertons, except that this isn't some vestige of our hoary past. It's North Carolina's Company Police Act of 1991, which allows a private security force--if approved by the Attorney General's office--to carry guns, make arrests and pursue suspects off-premises if the case begins on company property.

So it was in the 2003 episode related by Plancarte, and it resulted 18 months later in findings by a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) judge that Smithfield's cops had assaulted and falsely arrested employees who were only exercising rights protected under federal labor laws.

What happened?

Well, picture the Tar Heel plant, which at 973,000 square feet is the biggest hog plant in the world and is in the middle of nowhere. It's so big, it takes 250 men to clean it every night, meaning "the removal of animal parts, bones, blood and the like from the machinery and premises," as the judge delicately described it. It's miserable, dangerous work, and it's done under the auspices of a subcontractor, QSI Inc., whose on-site crew chiefs are, like Plancarte, all Spanish-speaking, too, and loyal to each other, not to their bosses in Tennessee and certainly not to Smithfield Foods.

Long story short (and the decision makes good reading at www.smithfieldjustice.com), QSI's mid-level managers had agreed, in writing, after a walkout a week earlier, to give the cleanup crews $1 more per hour each and to rehire a couple of their compadres who'd been fired. But when the brass at QSI and Smithfield Foods heard about that, they hit the roof. Fire the leaders and scrap the raise, they ordered.

So on that fateful night a week later, the Smithfield cops and the management gang tried to quietly terminate and remove Plancarte and a half dozen other crew chiefs while simultaneously preventing the rest of the workers--once they heard about it--from leaving the plant. Violence ensued, and according to the judge it was "initiated by [QSI's] management and the Smithfield Special Police."

The cops, Judge Lawrence Cullen determined, tried to stuff one worker into a trash can. They shouted that "immigration" was outside if the workers left, and threatened to make sure anyone who tried would be deported. Then, when some of the workers forced their way out anyway, the cops beat a couple of them up. And of course, those "bad employees" who left were fired--illegally, since they were "engaging in protected concerted activities," the judge said.

"This incident," Human Rights Watch remarked dryly in a recent report on the ill treatment of workers in U.S. meat and poultry plants, "suggests the conflict of interest that can arise when company employees can exercise state police powers while responding to the employer's directives and interests."

The title of that report, not incidentally: "Blood, Sweat, and Fear."

The fear factor: It's the fear part that the Justice @ Smithfield campaign wants to underscore. Approximately half of the 5,500 to 6,000 employees of the Tar Heel plant are Spanish-speaking immigrants, an unknown--but large--number of whom get hired after presenting phony documents that the company accepts, but might at any time "check into."

These illegals--and legal immigrants, too, if they're unsure about American laws--are unlikely to complain about the low pay ($8.10 an hour to start) and brutish working conditions in the plant, which were brilliantly described by Charlie LeDuff of The New York Times in 2000 as part of a Pulitzer-Prize winning series on race in America. (LeDuff got hired at Smithfield, and after three weeks on the line, he understood the saying that the company doesn't just kill hogs, it kills people, too. He reported that turnover in Tar Heel was around 100 percent a year--that is, there are 5,000 new hires, and 5,000 who leave, every year.)

Immigrant workers are also unlikely to buck the company's fierce opposition to having a union in Tar Heel, notwithstanding that 19 other, smaller Smithfield plants around the country do have one.

Twice in the last dozen years, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) mounted union-organizing drives at Tar Heel. Twice, when the workers voted, the union lost. The second election, held in 1997, was a whopping 2-to-1 loss for the UFCW.

But seven years later, when it finally addressed the union's appeal, the NLRB found that Smithfield had systematically harassed pro-union employees while openly favoring anti-union workers; it also threatened in forced-attendance meetings to cut wages or even close the plant if the union won. All of which is illegal.

In addition, the NLRB said, in the run-up to the election the police presence both inside the plant and outside (thanks to the Bladen Sheriff's office) was deliberately suffocating to the organizers and designed to intimidate those workers--immigrants especially--who might be thinking about voting pro-union.

Then, just after the votes were tallied, the NLRB found, the Smithfield cops helped mug two union activists, dragged them out of the plant in handcuffs and arrested them on phony charges that were later dropped for lack of evidence. The two won damages of $755,000 from Priest and Smithfield in a civil jury trial; their award, however, was overturned on legal technicalities by a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel.

The NLRB ordered a new election, and though Smithfield's appealing its ruling in the courts, and in particular the part that says the election must be held somewhere other than the plant, the UFCW's already begun a third organizing drive.

This time, however, the union, having learned its lesson in Tar Heel, is taking its case not just to the workers in the plant but to the rest of us in North Carolina, as well. That's the point of the Justice @ Smithfield campaign, led now not just by the UFCW but also the state AFL-CIO and the N.C. Council of Churches. It's not to force a union on the workers. It is to let them hold a fair election and decide for themselves whether they want one.

As union organizer Kevin Blair put it: "We've got to have community support to bring pressure on the company and so the workers know that they're not in it alone. Because the biggest problem we have is that the workers are so scared."

A Triangle Committee for Justice at Smithfield is organizing in support of the workers' right to choose a union if they want one. Its next meeting is 7 p.m. Thursday, July 28, at the state AFL-CIO headquarters, 1408 Hillsborough St., Raleigh.

To contact Citizen: rjgeary@mac.com.

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