- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

TAR HEEL, N.C.

For Hector Pizzaro, it wasn’t the rigors of a bloody workday spent slicing freshly killed hogs along an assembly line that led him to walk off the job. It was the chance he might lose that job.

The Mexican immigrant was among about 1,000 mostly Hispanic employees who staged a two-day walkout last month, upset that Smithfield Foods Inc. fired about 50 people in a crackdown on undocumented workers at the world’s biggest hog slaughterhouse.

Mr. Pizzaro, speaking in Spanish, warned that if Smithfield fires any more workers, “we’ll go again.”

Union officials who have struggled without success for more than a decade to organize the plant quickly threw their support to the Hispanic workers, recognizing that the crackdown and others like it across the country represent a new opportunity for the labor movement to boost membership.

“It is interesting that they’re taking this on and doing it in such a way, sort of out there as the defender of the undocumented worker,” said Richard Herd, a professor of labor studies at Cornell University. “They’re looking for a way to get more members, and this may be a way for them to make an effective challenge.”

Much of the recent immigration boom in North Carolina and other states is driven by jobs like those at Smithfield. In 2003, the latest year for which numbers are available, 42 percent of meat and poultry workers in the United States were Hispanic, and about a quarter of those were noncitizens, according to a government report.

The more than 5,000 workers at the plant in this little town about 85 miles southeast of Raleigh twice voted against forming a union in the 1990s.

Unions traditionally regarded immigrants as a competitive threat to American workers, said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for public policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group. But after seeing their membership plummet in recent decades, unions have come to regard immigrants as a source of recruits.

“That is a big, big shift,” she said. “The unions see it as a longer-term strategy that can both win immigration status for these workers and change working conditions for all workers.”

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