The meat of the matter

The labor movement's future might hang on what happens at this
giant packing plant near the tiny town of Tar Heel.
By Frank Maley

Hermillio Sosa steps into the pulpit of First Baptist Church in Fayetteville, ready to tell his story but unable to speak many words his audience will understand. Beside him, a man repeats his Spanish sen­tences in English for the congregation, most of it black. They’re here on the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., shot dead 40 years ago on a visit to support striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

Today, the faithful are joined by the fretful: roughly 50 workers from a slaughterhouse about 20 miles south near the Bladen County town of Tar Heel. They’re easy to tell from the regulars by bright yellow T-shirts that say Justice @ Smithfield. Many wear jeans and athletic shoes. It’s not what most consider church attire, but they’re here to rally support for organizing their workplace, the world’s largest pork-processing plant. It’s hard to look oppressed in your Sunday best.

Sosa’s story is short, the narrative choppy. He started working at Smithfield Packing in 1998. A few years ago, he joined a work stoppage to protest how fast production lines moved. Some who participated were fired. He ends with a word that needs no translation. “Gracias.” On cue, the audience bursts into applause. Most of the plant’s 5,000 workers are black, but more than a quarter are Latino. This, the speakers who preceded him have hammered, is a cause they all share. The event lauds not only King but also Cesar Chavez. Scenes from both men’s lives flash on the wall behind the choir.

Public-relations spectacles like this are skirmishes in the nearly 16-year battle for the plant by Smithfield Foods Inc., based in the Virginia town from which it takes its name, and the Washington, D.C.-based United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. Stakes are high for both sides, and the outcome will have effects far beyond the company, the union and plant employees.

With union membership continuing its long decline and representation of the U.S. work force dwindling — from 23% in 1983 to 13% in 2007 — the labor movement needs a big win. There would be no sweeter place to get it than North Carolina, the least unionized state in the nation. “This is one of the largest industrial plants in the South,” says Robert Korstad, associate professor of public policy studies and history at Duke University. “It’s symbolic to the union movement. If they’re able to win there, it sends a real signal to other workers in other industries.”

For Smithfield, a union in Tar Heel could expose the Achilles’ heel of the business model that made the company the world’s largest hog producer and pork processor. “They figure if they can get that done, it will be a catapult into other industry in North Carolina and South Carolina,” says Joe Luter IV, president of The Smithfield Packing Co., the subsidiary that runs the plant. “Then they’ll move on down the Southeast into Georgia, Alabama, etcetera.”

“If the labor movement can’t win the South, we can’t succeed,” Gene Bruskin, director of the union campaign, told Labor Notes magazine, adding: “The Tar Heel plant is big enough and important enough and close enough to other places that it has the possibility of moving other people. The possibilities of organizing packinghouse workers would be transformative to the labor movement, for immigrants, for African American workers, for the South.”

The UFCW has been trying to organize the Tar Heel plant since 1992, the year it opened. There have been longer campaigns in North Carolina and a few that involved more workers, says James Andrews, president of the state AFL-CIO in Raleigh. “But at least in recent history, I can’t think of a worse situation.” Hourly employees twice have voted on whether the union would represent them, and twice the union has lost. It claims the company won by coercion — charges backed by a court decision and the National Labor Relations Board, which has ordered a new election.

Smithfield is willing to try for a hat trick, but union leaders don’t trust it to play fair. They want specific rules guaranteeing company neutrality with “meaningful sanctions.” The company claims that the union wants to win recognition simply by getting a majority of workers to sign cards authorizing it as their collective-bargaining agent. “These are people who are trying to take away the right of employees to decide their own future in a secret-ballot election,” spokesman Dennis Pittman says. “This is trying to take away something that men and women have died for in this country and around the world.”

After negotiations broke down in October, Smithfield sued the union under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, essentially claiming that the union was a criminal organization trying to put it out of business with a smear campaign. The lawsuit contends that the UFCW has initiated frivolous regulatory investigations, made false statements to analysts to drive down the stock price and interfered with business relationships.

Undaunted, the union ramped up its PR campaign, even going after Paula Deen, the frosty-maned, magnolia-mouthed TV cook who has become the company’s public face. During one of her promotional tours in November and December, members and their allies met her with signs, urging her to listen to worker concerns. They flooded her Web site with e-mails and her Savannah, Ga., restaurant with phone calls.

As the field of battle has expanded beyond Eastern North Carolina, its duration — the elections were held in 1994 and 1997, though the NLRB didn’t render a decision until 2004 — has seen shifts that have changed both the industry and its work force. According to historian Roger Horowitz, who has written several books about labor relations in meatpacking, Latinos began moving into the industry during the 1980s as big union plants in the Midwest fell prey to smaller competitors with leaner cost structures. The surge of immigrants to North Carolina in the ’90s provided employers with a new pool of cheap, compliant labor.

Latinos made up nearly half of the Tar Heel plant’s workers in 2006. “Historically, Hispanics tend to be pro-company,” Luter says. “They appreciate the jobs, and they don’t mind the hard work. They like the money, and it’s an opportunity for them.” But Hispanic employment has decreased to 26% — about what it was when the last vote was held 11 years ago — due to a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement crackdown that forced Smithfield to fire workers who couldn’t prove their Social Security numbers were legitimate. Union officials say the company’s cooperation with ICE proved a convenient way to oust Latino activists, but executives contend that the crackdown affected pro-company workers as well. “Our participation in that program had a real negative impact on our company,” Luter says.

Tuesday dawns clear and cold, but dark clouds cover much of the western sky. The forecast calls for rain. The church service the previous day had represented a victory for workers. A year ago, the company refused demands to make Martin Luther King Day a paid holiday, so some workers stayed home. This year, Smithfield Packing had closed the plant. It rises, boxy and white, out of the flat, winter-browned landscape just north of Tar Heel, a hamlet of fewer than 100 people. The main building stretches more than a quarter-mile down N.C. 87, crisp and neat except for steam rising and pipes sprouting and snaking out of its roof like intestines from a carcass. At 5:30 a.m., machines crank up. Production begins again.

A worker nudges along a new shipment of hogs, which are still fighting, grunting and squealing, and herds 10 at a time into a chamber. The door automatically slides down, and carbon dioxide floods the compartment. Twenty seconds later, the other door opens, the floor tilts, and pigs, silenced and still, slide out. A back leg of each is shackled to an overhead conveyor, and a worker flashes a blade, slicing its jugular. Like slacks at a dry cleaner, dangling swine keep moving, blood raining from lifeless snouts to freshen crimson creeks in troughs below. The conveyor angles down, submerging them in scalding water to loosen their hair. For about 10 minutes, they stew in a U-shaped cauldron, always moving, then are levitated toward a machine with rubber flaps that plucks most of the bristles, followed by a series of furnaces — nozzles spewing blue, purple and orange flames — to singe off any left.

While large parts of the operation are automated, much of the work is by hand. After a worker slices away pieces burned by the furnaces, others cut off the head and gut the body. Most of the pig — including bellies that will be made into bacon — is sent to the cutting room. Workers there wear gauzy hairnets, dark-blue helmets, light-green gloves and white coveralls with light-blue sleeves. Green plastic mats at their stations keep their feet from slipping. A maze of conveyor belts move cuts of meat around the plant, sometimes taking them above the factory floor before lowering them like luggage at an airport. Machinery combines to produce a rushing sound that’s loud enough to warrant ear protection.

Once butchered to the right size, meat is wrapped and shipped to stores, wholesalers and distributors or to other Smithfield plants for processing. It’s no work for the queasy. Razor-sharp blades and repetitive-motion injuries are constant worries. Union brochures carry stories of workers hurt on the job and rushed back to the line. The company counters that the plant’s safety record is better than most and that the number of job-related injuries and illnesses has fallen in recent years. In 1998, 19 out of every 100 workers reported injuries on the job. Three years later, the number dropped below 10%. It has crept into double digits only one year since. Industry averages ranged from 12% to 29%.

Smithfield officials tout the plant’s economic benefit to the region — a payroll of $150 million a year. “The wages we pay in that facility are close to $2 an hour higher than poultry jobs in that same part of North Carolina,” Luter says. But the plant doesn’t fare so well in other comparisons. It draws more than 80% of its work force from Bladen, Cumberland and Robeson counties. Its average wage of $12.10 to $12.20 an hour for production workers is below Robeson’s average of $12.62, according to the most recent state Department of Commerce estimate, and average wages in Cumberland and Bladen are even higher.

Smithfield Foods has a history of dealing with unions stretching back 30 years. Its oldest union shop is in its hometown. Roughly 40% of its 53,000 employees are covered by collective-bargaining agreements with five unions. According to Pittman, the Tar Heel plant’s wages are about the same as those in the other plants, which explains why some workers don’t want the UFCW: Why pay dues if you’re already making as much as union members? But for the company, it raises another question: Why spend millions to keep the union out?

The Tar Heel plant plays a strategic role in the company’s business. It processes up to 32,000 hogs a day, 64% of Smithfield Packing’s total capacity. “If we had an extended strike in that plant,” Luter says, “we would have hogs backing up throughout North Carolina or we would have to put hogs on trucks and ship them to the Midwest.” One reason Smithfield built such a mammoth plant in Bladen County was its location. It’s close to Interstate 95, pig farmers in Eastern North Carolina and pork consumers on the East Coast.

The company had been a small player until the 1980s. In 1981, it bought Gwaltney, its main rival in Virginia, and doubled in size. Three years later, it acquired Patrick Cudahy, a Wisconsin-based maker of bacon, ham and sausage. At the same time, unions were losing their grip on the industry, as high labor costs made producers such as Armour and Swift vulnerable to new competition with leaner payrolls and heavier investment in machinery. Half the workers in meatpacking were union members in the early ’80s, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report in 2000 on consolidation in the industry. “By 1987, union membership in meatpacking had fallen to a fifth of the work force, where it has remained.”

Without having to deal with union work rules, the upstart companies could automate more of the process, speed up lines and keep down wages. Between 1977 and 2007, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures show, the average pay for production workers in animal slaughtering and processing plummeted from 4% below the national average for manufacturing production workers to more than 30%. It became “a job of last resort,” Horowitz says. “The work force changes, and you have this huge influx of immigrant workers.”

While this was happening, Smithfield was vertically integrating operations by raising as well as slaughtering hogs. In 1987, it launched a joint venture with Carroll’s Foods of Virginia in Warsaw. In 1992, it purchased a majority stake in Brown’s of Carolina in Kenansville. Hog production across North Carolina grew from 4.5 million head in 1992, the year the plant opened, to 9.3 million just four years later. Owning hogs from “squeal to meal” helps a processor control quality and build its brand, Horowitz says.

“They have more control over the input that they’re getting than Oscar Mayer and Hormel. That allows them certain efficiencies in production and manufacturing because they don’t have to worry about variations in supply.” But unlike pure meat processors, which can withstand a strike by ceasing to buy hogs, the company is at a disadvantage, he says. “Smithfield, by creating this integrated structure, is much more vulnerable. If they can’t keep operating, they have this huge inventory, which just tears their cash up.”

So far, Smithfield has kept organized labor at bay in Tar Heel. When the union filed charges with the NLRB after losing the 1994 election, the company agreed to another vote. Losing in ’97, the UFCW again turned to the NLRB, which ruled in 2004 that Smithfield had violated labor law in both contests. In ’94, the company had threatened to fire workers, confiscated union literature and intimidated employees while it was distributed. The ’97 campaign, the board found, had been worse — violations included assaulting a worker and threatening to freeze wages and to close the plant. It ordered a new election and made the company display a sign saying it had been found guilty of labor-law violations and listing more than 30 things it has promised not to do.

When the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the decision in 2006, the company gave up the legal fight. Luter won’t talk much about the ’97 election. “Let’s just say that some of the advice we got from outside people 10 years ago was probably not some of the best advice we got.” When pressed about the advice, he says, “I’d rather not go there. It’s a new day.” Luter, 43, has been president of Smithfield Packing since 2004. His great-grandfather and grandfather founded the company in 1936. His father, Joseph Luter III, is chairman of Smithfield Foods and was the holding company’s CEO since it was founded in 1975 to 2006, when he turned the job over to Larry Pope.

That it took the NLRB seven years to act is no surprise, Horowitz says. Weakened during the Reagan Administration, the labor board has never regained its strength. “Routinely, what has gone on in the last 25 years is companies violate the law in union organizing drives and trust that, if they lose, enough time passes between the violations and the ruling that the union is unable to recover.” As evidence that Smithfield isn’t anti-union, Luter points to an election last year at a distribution center in Clayton that the Steel Workers union won by two votes. “It was very close, but they won, so we’re in discussions with them right now.”

Keith Ludlum, a UFCW organizer who has been fired by Smithfield twice — he was reinstated by the NLRB once and is contesting the second — says there’s a world of difference between accepting union representation for 119 employees in a warehouse operation and doing it for more than 4,500 hourly workers in the main slaughterhouse. In March, Smithfield Packing announced it was closing a smoked-ham factory in Kinston — the only union shop among its six wholly owned processing plants in North Carolina. Pittman says the move is to improve efficiency and is not an anti-union maneuver. The plant is 60 years old; some of the jobs are heading for another union shop.

Winning a third election might keep out the union, but company executives shouldn’t expect such a victory to end the war. Reflecting on the previous votes, Pittman makes an observation that mirrors Horowitz’s from the opposite view. “If you’re familiar with campaigns and labor law, every time a union loses a campaign, they file unfair labor practices. It’s just part of their job. They’re supposed to file charges if they don’t win.” There’s just too much on the line, it seems, for either side to give up.