The Smithfield Packing plant located in Tar Heel, North Carolina is the largest pork slaughterhouse in the United States. Ever since it opened in 1992, workers at the plant have been struggling for their rights to have union representation. Their grievances were many, as slaughterhouses contain some of the most gruesome and dangerous jobs available, including slicing and de-boning hogs, and severe injuries were commonplace.
The Smithfield workers were not just fighting for better benefits and wages alone, but they were literally fighting for their own health.
Despite fierce management opposition, including forcing a worker to scrawl “VOTE NO” on the union on one of the hogs (The News and Observer, 12/11/08), and a fierce retaliatory raid against the workforce in which management colluded with Immigration and Customs Enforcement resulting in the arrest of 21 workers, the Smithfield workers continued to push for their right to a union. On Thursday, December 11, this fight resulted in a victory, as Smithfield workers voted 2,041 to 1,879 to join the United Food and Commercial Workers.
The Smithfield plant workers are no strangers to struggle. Back in January, in an act of defiance and racial solidarity all of Smithfield’s mainly black and Latino workforce walked off the job in protest of the fact the company would not give them the nationally recognized holiday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day off of work. A statement from one of the workers at the rally that day simply said “[Dr. King] died for the workers. He died for us” (Associated Press, 1/16/08), in reference to Dr. King’s assassination during his support for the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike, a struggle very close to the heart for militant black workers in the South.
The success of the unionization struggle at Smithfield will hopefully serve to point the way forward for other fighting workers in North Carolina and the South in general, as these conditions are not confined to the Smithfield plant alone. Since the early 1990s, many companies have started to move their operations into the Southeastern United States, where unionization rates are low, prices are cheap, and where scores of undocumented workers live, who they so often seek to exploit.
While this practice brings more employment into the region, often replacing the jobs lost with the globalization of the South’s once thriving textile industry, the new jobs are more than often much more dangerous than previous ones. In addition, as big business moves southward to increase profit off the backs of workers, they will not give up concessions as readily as other places. In fact, in an email sent out to its members in 2007, the NC Chamber of Commerce concluded with the statement “We will fight the threat of unionization wherever it arises.”
Workers in North Carolina have shown they are not afraid to fight back against these corporate thieves and they are not to be taken advantage of. For example in early 2007, UAW Local 3520 members led a wildcat strike in western North Carolina against Freightliner after their leadership had given hard won concessions back to the company.
With capitalism in crisis, we can only expect sharper attacks by big business and the ruling class against workers worldwide. Organizing ourselves into unions is the first great step to fighting back against the exploitation of the bosses, surging on the frontline to gain better contracts and treatment. We should spread the tide of unionism wherever we can, starting organizing drives in previously unorganized areas and fighting for more rank-and-file democracy in long-standing locals.
However, we must not just unionize alone. We must fight for our unions to adopt a fighting program to combat the attack on the working class as a whole. Without this, we will continue to be fighting the same battles down the road as we are today. As the victory at Smithfield shows, we are large enough and strong enough to win but we must continue to organize!