Revolution #76, January 14, 2007


Strike at Smithfield: Workers Under a Changing Sky

Part 1: No Longer Hidden, No Longer Hiding

Shift change at the Smithfield plant,
Tar Heel, North Carolina
photo: Mike Ely, Revolution

A team of reporters and translators from Revolution recently traveled through North Carolina to talk with workers and activists involved in the November 16, 2006 wildcat strike at Smithfield Foods' Tar Heel plant. This is the first of a series of reports from that trip.

Winter seems to strip the countryside of secrets. Driving along the two-lane, you can see deep into the gray stretches of dry pine forest and far across bare, open cotton fields.

But as night fell, as our contact took us farther and farther from the main road, it became obvious that many things about this corner of North Carolina have been carefully hidden.

"Roll down your window," A. said. "Smell that." The nose twitches. It almost burns. "The plant kills 32,000 hogs a day, many of them raised right around here." A. gestures at the dark woods around us.

Modern industrial hog farming concentrates the swine and pours their untreated excrement into countless "lagoons" that fill acre after acre across North Carolina. The farms are tucked back away from any roads, but there is no hiding the pungent mist of manure that hangs across the land.

We turn left, then right. Dirt roads lead off on every side. People too are hidden here. Suddenly we are in a huge trailer park carved out of the pines. Rows of doublewides, with muscle trucks parked out front. "Michoacan" is spraypainted across a fender. "La Hacienda" is across a trunk lid.

Most of the plantation South has not seen immigration like this before. A white worker quipped to us, "That last wave of immigrants came on slaveships, and they were ordered to 'speak English' too!"

But that has now changed. Over the last two decades, North Carolina's immigrant population has grown to at least half a million, overwhelmingly from Mexico and Central America. About 65% of the new immigrants are estimated to be undocumented. Called "illegal" and "alien," living like an outlaw population, these workers have kept out of sight--often in half-hidden trailer parks like this in remote clearings that dot the countryside.

Worked Mercilessly and Thrown Away

We have come to meet José and María, who both work at the Smithfield Tar Heel plant--the largest pig slaughtering and pork processing plant in the world. José, a slim man, is sitting on the sofa, restlessly, as his nephew lets us in. He is in pain. Two weeks before, at the Smithfield plant, he was wrestling with a tray, big as a table top, loaded with 70 pounds of fat and excess meat. Something gave out in his back.

José tells us in Spanish: "When I got hurt, the supervisor told me ‘pick up that tray.’ I told her I can't. 'Pick it up and throw it away.' So I picked it up and I continued working. But I couldn't hold the tray. She snapped her fingers, 'Then you just go home.' I was fired--for one day. If you get hurt you are fired. Then they told me, 'Work is waiting for you.' I am afraid that work will hurt me more. But now they can say I've quit."

José and María's five kids sit in a circle and listen intently as their parents describe their lives and troubles. One son is severely disabled--getting him care was one reason José first came here illegally, 12 years ago, from Guerrero.

Many hundreds of workers are injured like José each year at the Smithfield plant and are routinely fired. As we were in Robeson County, everyone was talking about a young Guatemalan woman who was accidentally stabbed in the eye with her own knife.

José tells us: "They don't just butcher hogs at that plant. They butcher people."

Smithfield had worked to keep all that secret too. The plant used to send screaming ambulances 2 or 3 times a day to the hospital in nearby Elizabethtown. But that became too obvious and too scandalous. So they built a clinic near the plant gates. Now the rate of injuries is hidden and the injury records are kept close.

And it's not just Smithfield. Everyone remembers when 25 workers were burned to death in 1991 behind the locked doors of the Imperial Food chicken plant when it exploded near here.

What happens if María now gets fired for not having legal paperwork? In October, under pressure from the Department of Homeland Security, Smithfield announced it would fire hundreds of immigrant workers whose social security numbers don't match their names.

José spits out his words: "The company has sucked the very air out our lungs and now they want to replace us."

María talks about finding a new job, perhaps in a chicken plant, and then her eyes lock onto ours: "This is the way they treat us. We are not going to tolerate that forever."

Yes--push has come to shove.

A thousand Latino workers walked out of the Smithfield plant on November 16. In a churning rally over two days, they climbed upon cars and spoke their  bitterness over the firing of the undocumented, over the brutal treatment in the plant--in the face of the company guards and gathering sheriffs.

That's how our Revolution team of reporters and translators knew to come here to Robeson County. The Smithfield strike had been like a brilliant flare launched over dark waters. A thousand workers risking not only their jobs--they knowingly risked arrest and deportation, they risked not seeing their kids that night. They spoke for themselves, and literally for millions more.

When we met immigrant workers like "María" and "José," many of them did not want their real names or voices recorded. But they had a sense that, for them, there is no going back. The hiding is over, and they want their stories, their suffering, their dreams and their questions to reach the world. They want some justice.

"Things I’ve seen and that I've lived"

We took over a small storage room in a local office, so workers could hook up with Revolution to give interviews.

CC walked in--a lean, hard Black man, dignified, very tight-lipped at first.  He told of growing up in a sharecropper family with six kids in South Carolina. He talked about picking cotton at seven years old. About how, after the army, he had worked construction until decent pay and benefits just disappeared. And now he was here at the Tar Heel plant.

"They work you hard out there, steady gettin it," CC said, and described how he stands braced on that slimy floor, "chiseling jawbone" in one hard repetitive downward jerk, forcing the hog jowls from the bone on one carcass after another. "It's not something I want for my four kids."

The speed and intensity of the killing is startling. Truckloads bring hundreds of hogs an hour to the pens of the plant. They are raced to the killing floor--stunned, tattooed, and then stabbed once square in the throat. The lifeblood spurts warm, splattering the workers, over and over, one after another. Within seconds the pigs are hanging from hooks--gutted, draining, and moving toward the long lines of workers with razor-sharp knives. It is work that breaks down your joints at the shoulder, the wrist, and the knees. The heavy mixed smell of death and bleach is often overwhelming. Thousands of workers quit every year, or get injured or fired. And just as many arrive.

Smithfield directly employs between 5,000 and 6,000 workers. But their turnover is so huge that they also hire around 5,000 new workers each year.

When the plant first opened in 1992, it employed mainly Black workers (plus about 30% that were either white or Lumbee Indian). Smithfield brought convict labor onto the line. And alongside them came numbers of Black "ex-cons" who have trouble getting hired anywhere else.

Smithfield quickly went through a lot of the Black workers from the surrounding areas--and the company was obviously worried that the ongoing organizing might bring in a union. And so by the mid-1990s, Smithfield, like many other capitalists, was actively recruiting immigrant workers from Mexico and Central America. They dreamed of a workforce that was more desperate, grateful, intimidated and divided. No one knows for sure if Smithfield directly contracted with coyotes--but certainly they put out the word that anyone who made it here to their plant was guaranteed a job, no questions asked.

When I asked José how he ended up in Tar Heel 12 years ago, he said simply, "That's where the van was heading."

CC says, "It's not just Black and white anymore." What's true for the plant is true for the South. Smithfield's operation is about 65% Latino and 30% Black--at least for now.

Workers are tightly segregated from each other by work crew and language.  CC talks about how the system based on petty favoritism inflames the hostilities: "They are working to keep Mexican and Black at each other. They do something to satisfy the Mexican, and Blacks get angry. Do something to please the Blacks to get Mexicans angry." Workers talked of "stare-downs" in the hall between Black and Mexican workers armed with knives, who have no way to speak to each other.

Raphael came to Tar Heel early in this immigration wave. He had been arrested  as a trade union militant in Mexico, and is active in trying to bring the United Food and Commercial Workers into the Tar Heel plant. He tells us of "things I’ve seen and that I've lived."

“I've been working here for nine years," Raphael started, "and they treat us very badly, worse than if we were slaves. There is so much pressure and aggression. They shout at us, ‘You, fucking wetback, get moving.’ They call us ‘motherfuckers’ and more. The supervisors speak to us through crew leaders who translate their orders and insults, and are, unfortunately, Latino like us. Supervisors always want us to work better than we are really doing. If you do it better they want more and more. The line doesn't come like this: dum… dum… dum… it comes like this ta-ta-ta-ta-ta. And there we stand on that line, shoulder to shoulder. So close that we touch, swinging that knife. And there they stand, the supervisors, each with a calculator, always taking the count--and trying to meet their quota for that day--they just get hysterical, just running around screaming, if they think it is falling behind... I knew I was coming here to work. But I didn’t expect the abnormality, and the abuse. I expected something far better than this. Because, many times you’ve seen stuff like this in your own country--but you don’t expect something like this in a country like the U.S.--an advanced country."

In Part 2: A new force announces itself in the sleepy streets of Lumberton, and outrages build toward explosion.

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