Revolution #71, December 3, 2006
At Smithfield's Tar Heel Slaughterhouse
North Carolina Workers Strike Against Anti-Immigrant Firings
Smithfield's Tar Heel plant is the largest slaughterhouse in the world, sprawling over 830 acres in southeastern North Carolina.
On November 16 this plant flared into national headlines, as a thousand workers walked out on strike against the company's firing of immigrant workers who, Smithfield claimed, were working with false papers.
Hell in the Hog Belt
This Tar Heel plant was built close to hog farms, but far from almost everything else. The nearest town is 20 miles away--but most workers have had to travel much farther than that to get there. Over 60 percent of the 5,000 workers here are originally from Latin America--most from Mexico, but also from Honduras and Guatemala. About 30 percent of the workers are African American workers, many drawn from the surrounding rural areas where other jobs are hard to find. Plantation-style, the foremen like to call each other “boss man” and talk to the workers like they are dirt.
This factory kills and processes 32,000 hogs a day-- sending one every 3.5 seconds down each of the lines. “The line speed is just blazingly fast,” one worker told Revolution. “People are shoulder-to-shoulder on the line that runs hours nonstop--so close that people get accidentally stabbed by their co-workers. It's repetitive motion. Workers have been killed in the plant. A worker who hadn't been trained in the dangers went down into a tanker filled with hog blood, chemicals and stuff and was overcome by the fumes. And the only fine for this 26-year-old man's life was $4,323.”
One Black worker described to Revolution how insult is piled on top of the danger. He works running the 250-pound hogs up the concrete lane to the kill floor. “Here we are,” he said, “splashed with hog urine and feces because the drains don't work. And they want to harass you if you go to the bathroom just to wipe it off your face.”
Another worker told Revolution , “I've seen hogs fall off the shackles, knock a worker down and the foreman is hollering 'Grab that hog and fill that gap in the line!' all while that worker is still lying there unconscious!”
Smithfield Foods, a global corporation with sales over $11 billion, was just declared one of "America’s Most Admired Companies of 2006" by Fortune magazine.
After years of hiring and exploiting immigrant workers, Smithfield turned over their hiring records to the federal government--saying that they were being pressured by the Department of Homeland Security. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said that 600 social security numbers from the Tar Heel plant did not to match the employee names. In October, Smithfield told workers they had two weeks to provide explanations. One Smithfield representative told workers at the Tar Heel plant that the ICE had threatened to raid the factory if Smithfield had not gone ahead with these firings. (They have already been carrying out raids against immigrants in other factories in North Carolina.)
People wondered what would happen to their jobs, their families and their very lives. And the answer came quickly: company guards and officials suddenly took over 50 workers off the line and fired them.
There was sharp controversy among the workers over what to do. Quite a few workers have been influenced by the company's argument that they were just obeying the law. And many workers were afraid to take action: over the last 14 years there had been repeated attempts to organize a union among the workers, and the company had responded harshly by firing active workers and by threatening to call the immigration police on immigrant workers. In addition, there are real divisions between Black and Latino workers, including a view among a section of workers that immigrants are ''taking jobs'' that should ''belong'' to workers born in the U.S.
Eduardo Pena is one of the organizers for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, who have been waging an intensified campaign over the last four years to unionize this plant. He told Revolution that divisions among the workers are actively encouraged by Smithfield and its hiring practices--that first seemingly “favored” African Americans, then switched to mainly hiring Latino immigrants, and recently leaned back toward hiring African American workers. This promoted an atmosphere where different nationalities feel they are competing against each other for available jobs. And then on the plant floor, the workers are often segregated into crews by language.
Pena told Revolution, “A big part of what the union has been doing has been dealing with the way the company has been pitching Black against Latino.” In the organized core of about fifty or sixty that have been attending union meetings, the workers share their stories and experiences with each other through translators.“A lot of Latinos,” Pena said, “don't understand how African Americans were brought into this country. They see that Black people are part of this country, and they don't realize the tremendous struggle they have gone through just to gain the most basic rights. Also many Latinos have come to share stories of their home countries, and what it is like to go through the desert, how it was a major decision to come all this way. That they didn't just wake up one day and decide, 'Gee, I'm going to go get a meatpacking job in North Carolina.'”
A sharp sign of this continuing division is that when company officials came to fire the targeted workers, some workers on the line openly supported the firing, shouting “You are illegal, get out of here!”
At the same time, many of the workers felt very differently.
One white worker, a Gulf war vet and an active supporter of the union drive, told Revolution : “Latinos are experiencing the the same thing that used to happen to the Irish and Chinese. I have total respect for people, whose country is so devastated, who are willing to leave their home to make a living. … People have to have compassion for other people. I've always felt that way.”
Another worker said, “Being an African American--I know the struggles I had in life. It's not like the Latino-Americans who came over are not trying to get a job; these people have put their heart and soul into it, hoping to live like decent human beings. When we are cut, we all bleed the same blood… If you know how it feels to be kicked when you are down, why would you turn against others who face the same thing?”
After days of mounting tension, workers pulled key switches that shut down the production line early in the morning of November 16. Hundreds of pig carcasses were just hanging there, swinging, as workers poured out the doors into the parking lot. They chanted “Queremos justicia!” (We want justice!) and “Sí se puede!” (We can do it!).
The word of the wildcat strike swept through the plant: “The Latinos have walked out!”
There was real excitement in that parking lot as more followed, including several dozen Black and white workers who walked out, sometimes in ones and twos, sometimes in small groups, to stand against the injustice.
Company officials ran around frantically, ordering people back on the line. One worker laughed as he told Revolution how supervisors tried to shut him up as he yelled to his crew, “Come on and join us! This is a way to make a difference!”
Six or seven hundred workers walked out, and at the next shift change, hundreds more from second shift stayed out. The mass picket swelled to a thousand at the front gate. Right there in the parking lot, the workers elected a multinational leadership committee to formulate demands.
Most workers stayed on the job--either scared to strike or unwilling to support the undocumented workers. But enough walked out that day that production stopped. And the arrogant company heads were totally stunned.
That night the strike made the national news. CNN's frothing-at-the-mouth anti-immigrant reactionary Lou Dobbs was sputtering that workers had dared to strike in support of the undocumented. Meanwhile there were expressions of support for the strikers from churches, artists, and civil rights organizations.
The strikers had risked losing their jobs--and perhaps being singled out for arrest and deportation--and they had won a important victory when Smithfield agreed to important concessions. The company agreed to rehire the fired workers and meet for the first time with an elected committee of the plant workers.
Then, after the strike ended and all the workers returned to work, Smithfield announced that it was giving workers at all its plants nationwide 60 days to clear up any problems with their social security numbers. The company clearly intends to press ahead to fire any workers who do not provide satisfactory proof of legal status.
The powerful action of the striking workers puts the spotlight on the horrific conditions faced by workers at plants like Tar Heel, and on the unjust attacks aimed at immigrant workers.
A thousand workers of Tar Heel dared to demand justice--in the face of intense anti-immigrant hysteria in North Carolina, in the face of federal threats of firing and deportation, and in the face of sharp divisions among the workers themselves. They deserve active support in their ongoing fight to make Smithfield back off completely from firing the immigrant workers they so ruthlessly exploited.
At the same time, this struggle has a potential importance far beyond one plant or one region. These workers are an inspiring example of resistance to an increasingly repressive political climate. Their struggle places a challenge before everyone across the U.S.--to take a clear stand in defense of undocumented immigrants and against the criminal injustices carried out by this system.
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