Monday, October 30, 2006

Smithfield Packing: Where Hogs Have Better Representation Than Workers

The Facing South Blog hasanother upsetting story about shameful working conditions at the Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina:
FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. – Like anyone who’s worked at a job for 10 years, Quincy Harvey had some stories to tell. But Mr. Harvey worked at the Smithfield Packing Plant in North Carolina, so his stories were more gruesome than most.

There was the time he accidentally stuck a knife through his hand – but had to wait 45 minutes and take a urine test before plant personnel took him to a hospital. Another day, while he was changing clothes, a block of 14 lockers that were not secured fell and pinned him, injuring his legs. The company said the incident would not be considered work-related.

Finally, after six years of cutting whole hog carcasses down the middle with a 100-pound “split saw,” Harvey developed a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder, which required surgery. Again, company officials told him that the injury wasn’t job-related. He was fired after 13 weeks on medical leave.
In addition to reviewing past reports of worker abuses and union busting at Smithfield, including a 2005 Human Rights Watch report, the article also examines the political situation behind Smithfield's ability to avoid improving its working conditions. North Carolina OSHA inspeced the plant, found 45 serious violations, but fined the plant only $23,514, leaving some observers skeptical of the political process:
Steve Wing, a professor at the UNC School of Public Health, noted that one of the problems in looking to the government is the history of generous campaign contributions from Smithfield that have corrupted the political system. Several of the injured workers who spoke seemed also to have given up hope for regulatory reform: They said they had come to believe that struggling to win union recognition was the only way to make changes at the plant.

[Marion Crain, of the University of North Carolina (UNC) Center on Poverty, Work and Opportunity,]also spoke of government failures, noting that in North Carolina “the hogs have better representation than the workers.” She called the state’s labor laws “a disgrace,” and spoke out in favor of “card check” agreements. These are less contentious alternatives to union elections, which have tended to be disputed and end up in drawn out hearings before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Two previous UFCW elections at Smithfield, in 1994 and 1997, were disputed for years and eventually thrown out by the NLRB, which found the company guilty of intimidating workers and interfering with the vote.
And so it goes.