Monday, June 19, 2006

Smithfield Packing: Walking Into The Pit Of Hell

New York Times reporter Bob Herbert returns with a second column on the plight of workers at the Smithfield Packing Company in Tar Heel, North Carolina and the illegal fight the company has waged against the union trying to organize workers at the plant. As no one but paying Times Select readers can read the article online, I'll quote extensively.

Plant worker describe for Herbert what it's like to work at the plant:
Life inside the Smithfield plant can border on the otherworldly. To get a sense of what conditions are like on the killing floor, where 32,000 hogs are slaughtered each day, listen to the comments of a former Smithfield worker, Edward Morrison, whose job required him to flip 200- and 300-pound hog carcasses, hour after hour:

"Going to work on the kill floor was like walking into the pit of hell.They have these fire chambers, big fires going, and this fierce boiling water solution. That's all part of the process that the carcasses have to go through after they're killed. It's so hot in there. And it's dark and noisy, with the
supervisors screaming, and that de-hair machine is so loud. Some people can't take it.

"I would go home at night and my body would be all locked up because I was dehydrated. All your fluids would just sweat out of you on your shift. I don't think the company cared. Their thing was just get that hog out the door by any means necessary."
Despite conditions at the plant, the United Food and Commercial workers union has been unable to organize the 5500 workers are the plant, not because of lack of support, but because of Smithfield's illegal actions that prevented a fair election.
A vast majority of the workers at Smithfield are Latino or black. The union has circulated the comments of Ronnie Ann Simmons, who worked at Smithfield when the 1997 vote was held. "It was ugly," she said. "Supervisors yelling: 'Hit this nigger! Hit this nigger! They don't need to vote.' Police was everywhere."

The board and the courts determined that Smithfield had been guilty of myriad "egregious" violations of federal labor law. The company was ordered to cease its interference with the union's organizing effort and to reinstate workers that the courts found had been illegally fired because of their union activities.

Rather than obey the directives of the board and the courts, Smithfield has tied the matter up on appeals that have lasted for years.
Herbert reports, however, that Smithfield is showing signs of changing its evil ways. It has given workers a raise, decided not to appeal the court's decision, and promised to fully comply with the orders of the court and the NLRB.

Given Smithfield's history, the union, however, remains skeptical, fear more illegal tactics and another lenghty court battle. According to the UFCW's Smithfield organizing director, Gene Bruskin
"What we are fighting for," he said, "is for them to recognize that they've got to talk to the workers and the union and work out a process that doesn't involve intimidation and interference."
The company promises to be good. Herbert says "We'll see," but the union doesn't want to take its chances with the possibility of yet another tainted eletion. Instead, 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. As Herbert says, "We'll see..."

More information on UFCW's organizing campaign at Smithfield can be found here.

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