If you needed any evidence that we are at a moral, economic and political impasse over immigration, just review this month's walkout by more than 1,000 workers at Smithfield Packing's hog slaughtering plant in Tar Heel. It's the latest collision between an industry built on cheap labor, a dysfunctional immigration system, and homeland security policies drafted in a reality-proof bubble.
Protesting immigration screenings that resulted in the firing of 50 workers and put 600 others on notice that their information was suspect, the mass walkout and subsequent picketing at Tar Heel is being billed as a fight over illegal immigrants. While immigration is a part of the mess, the plant's long history of harassment, intimidation and violations of worker rights laid the groundwork for the walkout.
The Bladen County plant, the largest pork processing facility in the world, slaughters up to 32,000 hogs a day and employs about 5,500 workers. It is a world to itself—complete with its own security force and jail.
For years, the plant has made headlines in North Carolina as environmentalists have railed against the enormous amount of wastewater flowing from its killing floors into the Cape Fear River. Not so publicized in this union-phobic state has been the long-running battle over organizing attempts at the plant by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Union votes have been defeated twice at the plant, most recently in 1997, when on the day of the union vote workers were greeted at the plant gates by Bladen County sheriff's deputies in full riot gear. A federal judge later ruled the company repeatedly used unlawful actions to preserve its non-union status.
A Human Rights Watch report in 2002 detailed dangerous working conditions at the plant, intimidation of union organizers and attempts to evade worker compensation rules.
In April of this year, a unanimous ruling by the National Labor Relations Board cited the company and a contractor for physical intimidation and using threats to call immigration authorities to bully employees.
The Tar Heel plant, already dependent on Hispanic workers, is a key part of Smithfield's growth strategy. This year the company is on an acquisition run—on its way to becoming one of the world's largest meatpackers. As a part of its realignment, Smithfield recently announced plans to reduce the workforce at its unionized plant in Smithfield, Va., and increase work at the non-union Tar Heel plant.No-match, no mas
The trigger for the events this month at Tar Heel comes from a retooling of federal Social Security procedures that followed the 9/11 attacks. Under rules adopted as a result of the Patriot Act, the Social Security Administration stepped up its criteria for so-called no-match letters and notifies employers of discrepancies in Social Security accounts. In the Triangle, the new rules hit home first just before Thanksgiving 2001, with mass firings of grocery workers by Harris Teeter and Food Lion stores. There have been similar incidents around the country, but for the most part businesses resisted efforts by the feds to get them involved in immigration enforcement. Now, with federal officials honing their enforcement systems, companies are being pressured to respond. And with anti-immigration fervor reaching a new peak, the no-match letter stands to become the chief weapon for the rear guard of the Minutemen movement.
But it looks like those caught up in the no-match net aren't just going to quietly march off to the border.
The three-day walkout this month caused production at the plant to drop by 30 percent, forcing the company to negotiate an agreement with a local representative of the Roman Catholic Church. The deal included a promise of no retaliation against those who walked out and reinstatement of the fired workers who now have 60 days to clear up discrepancies in their Social Security records.
Union organizers are ratcheting up the pressure by asking consumers to make their holiday parties Smithfield-free and calling for protests at Harris Teeter stores around the state on Saturday, Dec. 2.
(You can check out employee stories, documentation of abuses and the latest on the protests at www.smithfieldjustice.org.)
Everyone involved—the workers, the union, the church and the company management—agree that the latest solution is temporary, a little bit of wallpaper over a fissure of massive proportions.
For years, businesses and their undocumented workers have settled for a "look the other way" approach. And the feds can't seem to come up with anything better than no-match letters and an imaginary fence at the border. Any economic system built on a workforce that can be intimidated is a house of cards. This one is on the verge of collapse.