Monday, February 13, 2006

Smithfield Packing Tries To Be Funny: "First Concern Is Safety of Our Employees"

"Our first concern in setting line speeds is the safety and health of our employees."
-- Smithfield Packing Company spokesman Jerry Hostetter

As you might imagine from the above quote, I wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry after reading this article by NY Times labor reporter Steven Greenhouse about a UFCW organizing campaign at Smithfield pork-processing plant in Tar Heel, NC. This campaign is no small deal. The Tar Heel plant is the nation's largest pork processing plant, killing 32,000 hogs a day and employing nearly 5,500 workers.

Here's the first part you can't decide whether to laugh or cry about.

Instead of calling for an election, the union is putting together a coalition of churches, civil rights groups and colleges students to press the company for neutrality in the unionization fight. Not surprisingly, the company opposes those tactics, boasting about how well management and employees work together, that they don't need a "third party", that neutrality would "bar the company from telling employees about the downside of unionization," workers would be "shielded from the facts," and wouldn't learn the "full story."

And then the punch line:
[Smithfield spokesman Jerry] Hostetter said nothing was stopping the union from seeking a new election tomorrow. "If our employees want an election at Tar Heel, we know of no reason why it would not be fair and free for all concerned," he said.
He knows of no reason? How about this?
In 1997, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union lost a unionization election at the sprawling plant, built in this rural town 75 miles south of Raleigh. But it was not until 2004 that the National Labor Relations Board upheld an administrative law judge's decision that threw out the election results.

The labor board found that the Smithfield Packing Company not only had prevented a fair election by illegally intimidating, firing, threatening and spying on workers but also had a union supporter beaten up the night of the vote count.
Need another example?
Lorena Ramos, 29, an immigrant from Honduras, said Smithfield's managers and consultants often told the workers that the union only wanted employees' dues money and would cause strikes that could lead to violence, job losses and even closing the plant.

Her right arm was badly injured when it got caught in a conveyer belt as she was scooping dry ice into packing boxes. She and her husband were outspoken union supporters, and they said they were shocked and embarrassed when the plant's internal police force arrested them, handcuffed them and paraded them through the plant, accusing them of setting a fire in one of the plant's cafeterias. The county's district attorney dropped the charges for lack of evidence.

Ms. Ramos quit the plant after the arrest, too scared to return. The union hired her as an organizer because of her popularity, courage and communications skills.

"Right now if the workers want something to change at the plant, the plant's not going to listen to them," she said. "If the workers have a union, then they will be listened to."
Finally, it's good to see that health and safety conditions are a major part of this campaign (attention John Sweeney)
"A union would help reduce all the injuries — people are getting hurt left and right," said Edward Morrison, 42, an Army veteran who quit his job on the kill floor in October after tearing his knee while straining to push a rack that had five hogs hanging from it. "A union would also give the workers a say-so."
Ergonomics is one of the major issues in the campaign (Thanks George Bush):
For workers, line speed is one of the biggest issues. On each processing line on the kill floor, a hog passes about every three and a half seconds, translating into about 1,000 hogs an hour, 8,000 a shift. Many workers complain that injuries are caused by the line speed and by having to do the same task thousands of times daily. Workers sometimes even stab one another or themselves by mistake.

Smithfield officials said the plant's injury rate was no worse than the industry average. "Our first concern in setting line speeds is the safety and health of our employees," Mr. Hostetter said.
Yeah, I'll bet. Anyway, at least Hostetter has a sense of humor.

If it's not already obvious, the reason I'm rolling on the floor laughing and crying is that this is a plant that's notorious for its serious health and safety problems, highlighted last March in a Raleigh News Observer article , and a report of the human toll in the meatpacking industry issued by Human Rights Watch last year.

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