US: Workers hold back racist and anti-labor attack
Heroic strike in Tar Heel, NC, holds back racist, anti-labor attack
The battle is not over: no confidence in the bosses’ promises; now’s the
time for massive labor solidarity actions!
Hundreds of workers struck the Smithfield Foods pork processing factory
in Tar Heel, North Carolina on November 16 and 17, demanding that
Smithfield management end its racist intimidation against the workers
and recognize their union. Employing over 5,500 workers, a large
majority of them black and latin@, the Tar Heel facility is the largest
pork processing plant in the world, and is infamous for its deadly
working conditions and union-busting management. Hogs hurtle across the
assembly line at a rate of 32,000 per day, one every three or four
seconds per worker, according to the New York Times of June 15, 2006,
and workers slip, fall, and cut themselves or each other, struggling to
keep up on blood and feces-slicked cutting floors.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union (UFCW) lost
union-certification elections at the Tar Heel plant in 1994 and 1997,
but the elections were so marred by company interference and
intimidation that the National Labor Relations Board threw out the
results both times.
In 2000, Smithfield Farms organized a police force on site at the Tar
Heel plant, deputized by the North Carolina state police and authorized
to carry weapons into the plant and arrest workers. Sherri Bufkin, a
former Smithfield manager at the Tar Heel plant, testified to Congress
on June 20, 2002, that a company attorney ordered her to fire Margot, a
laundry worker, becasue she was pro-union, saying "fire the b****."
Bufkin testifies that at the 1997 election, the plant manager and the
security director (who also happened to be a county sheriff) ordered all
the salaried employees to participate in a racist, anti-union rally in
the room where the ballots were being cast, shouting the slogans
"N*****s get out" and "union scum go home." Sheriffs stationed inside
the polling place arrested known union supporters.
The injustice that sparked November’s walkout was Smithfield’s
anti-immigrant racist intimidation tactic of threatening and firing
workers when the social security numbers they provided to the Smithfield
bosses allegedly did not match federal records. This is a union-busting
attack frequently aimed at immigrant workers.
Yet as late as June 30, 2006, UFCW international president Joseph T.
Hansen wrote an open letter to Smithfield Foods CEO at the time, Joseph
Luter the Fourth, in which, while condemning the company’s anti-worker
abuse, promised that "The UFCW stands ready to fully cooperate with
you." The UFCW has organized a public pressure campaign and is calling
for a holiday boycott of Smithfield products. But it has studiously
avoided organizing direct actions such as pickets and other work actions
at the twenty-nine unionized Smithfield plants in the US. Effective
direct action against Smithfield would undermine the UFCW bureaucrats’
promises of labor peace with the Smithfield bosses in return for union
recognition. A statewide day of action planned by the UFCW for Saturday,
December 2 in North Carolina targets the Harris Teeter supermarket
chain, pressuring the supermarket to boycott Smithfield, rather than
directly targetting the racist union-busters at Smithfield.
Gene Bruskin, the top UFCW bureaucrat for the Justice at Smithfield
campaign, praised Smithfield in a November 18 press release, saying
"We’re glad the company did the right thing and recognized that they
were mistaken in the way that they were applying these policies. The
fact that they sat down and negotiated over the workers’ concerns is an
example of the kind of process that benefits everyone, the company,
community and employees allowing all to resolve differences. This is a
historic break from Smithfield Packing’s long history of confrontation
and intimidation of their workers in Tar Heel." The impact of the bold
workers’ action is indisputable, proving once again that one strike is
more powerful than a thousand pressure campaigns, press releases, and
prayer meetings. But the situation is far from settled. The two-day
walkout forced Smithfield management to promise to suspend its firings
and allow workers who had been threatened with Social Security "no
match" letters more time to provide documentation. Smithfield management
also promised to meet with the workers’ committee. The workers held back
a vicious racist, anti-union attack, but this is at best a temporary
victory, and it is no time to be praising the anti-union thugs who run
Smithfield or to be promoting the least bit of confidence in their
How to win
As long as the threat of firing and deportation, however delayed, hangs
over the heads of latin@ and other immigrant workers at Smithfield, as
long as the company refuses to recognize the workers’ union, as long as
the bosses, allied with the INS and the police, menace blacks, latin@s,
and other oppressed workers with the specter of racist, anti-union
Klan-style intimidation, this is not a "process that benefits everyone."
The deadly process of oppression and exploitation continues in Tar Heel
and at meatpacking plants across the country. The workers at Tar Heel,
and the historic May 1 nationwide strike of immigrant workers point the
way forward: now is the time for labor, immigrants rights, and
anti-racist groups to organize massive pickets and protests outside
every Smithfield plant and office, to demand that social security number
investigations be stopped and dropped, not just delayed, and that
Smithfield recognize the union and unconditionally meet all its demands.
The interests of the Smithfield bosses and the workers are completely
opposed. There can be no compromise that "benefits everyone," and the
Smithfield workers’ struggle cannot stop at this precarious stage.
Clearly, Smithfield does benefit from racism, union-busting, and
murderous negligence of the most elementary safety precautions at its
Tar Heel plant. The way to stop Smithfield’s criminal anti-worker
attacks once and for all is to expropriate the meatpacking industry,
throwing out the parasitic, racist bosses and placing it under the
democratic control of the workers themselves.
* This article was published in the December Issue of Working Class Emancipation.