- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 25, 2006


Smithfield Foods Inc.’s 12-year battle with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union reignited last week amid a new bid to organize workers at the company’s pork-processing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.

UFCW held rallies in Chicago, New York, Boston, Richmond, Atlanta, Washington and Raleigh, N.C. — all major markets for Smithfield, the world’s largest pork processor. The union contends that the Tar Heel plant’s 5,000 workers are forced to endure unsafe conditions and unfair labor practices, such as being fired when injured.

Federal officials ordered the Smithfield, Va., company last year to hold a new union election after it agreed with a judge’s ruling that the company prevented plant workers from holding fair elections in 1994 and 1997. UFCW is demanding that Smithfield sit down with the union and agree to terms to ensure a fair process.

“It has to be an airtight solution because this company has a long history of abuse and flagrantly disregarding the law,” said Gene Bruskin, who is directing the campaign against Smithfield for UFCW. “We want the workers at Tar Heel to have a union contract without having to go through a reign of terror.”

Smithfield says it is the victim of a smear campaign by a union desperate to add new members.

“They want to win the plant here, but there’s a much bigger ambition at work,” said company spokesman Dennis Pittman. “Their goal is to say they came after Smithfield and got them, and then use that to help get more membership in other places.”

The union doesn’t dispute that it seeks to use Smithfield to send a message to other food-processing companies, particularly those that have moved operations to largely nonunionized communities in the South.

The Tar Heel campaign is the biggest ever for the UFCW, which represents more than 1.3 million workers in the meatpacking, meat-processing, grocery-store and food-retail industries, said union spokeswoman Leila McDowell. It’s also the largest manufacturing drive in the South by any union in more than a decade.

“We intend to organize all those workers in the South and elsewhere who want a union,” Mr. Bruskin said. “This campaign shows Smithfield and other employers that we are going to put all the resources and energy that are needed to do it.”

Labor watchers say the UFCW’s Tar Heel campaign will test the union’s ability to make headway in the South.

“It will be difficult, but if it works the payoff will be huge,” said Richard Hurd, a professor at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

“They can leverage the success to organize other meatpacking facilities, especially in rural states.”

North Carolina had the second lowest union membership rate of any of the 50 states last year, at 2.9 percent, behind South Carolina at 2.3 percent, federal government data show.

The Tar Heel plant, which is located near the Virginia border in the northeastern part of the state, slaughters 32,000 hogs a day.

Smithfield had about 51,290 employees as of last year, 21,800 of whom were unionized, the company’s most recent annual filing said.

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