Revolution #77, January 28, 2007
Strike at Smithfield: Workers Under a Changing Sky
Part 2: The Struggle Erupts
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 second of a series of reports from that trip. The first part “No Longer Hidden, No Longer Hiding” appeared in Revolution #76.
“We came for the money,” José told us. And we heard those same words from all the immigrant workers who spoke with us on our trip to southeastern North Carolina.
The workers had come far north for the same wages that many Black workers consider intolerably low. Starting pay at Smithfield Foods’ massive hog-killing operation is $8 an hour. It is more in a day than José could make in a week in Guerrero, Mexico. One Black worker said to Revolution: “At these wages, we can barely live in a rundown house or trailer.”
Many immigrants are sending money home to family in Mexico and Guatemala, and dreaming of returning themselves, once they have saved “enough,” to build a house or buy a patch of land.
Under these conditions, thrown together by the workings of a global system of plunder, workers from different parts of the world have found themselves working side by side. And they often look at each other across a real divide created by their different experiences and different summations of how things came to be the way they are.
Thrown Together in North Carolina
While we were in the kitchen, José’s teenage nephew took us aside and quietly said, "I was born without a future. I could never have in Mexico what I have here. There's nothing there. That's why I'm here.
When he heard we were interviewing workers for Revolution newspaper, Julio sought us out. He is twenty-something and intense. Julio started in without waiting for us to ask a question: “Unfortunately I was born in a country that was full of poor people and run by thieves. We immigrated to a country we expected to be better. And found that it is just the same.”
What Julio had found after crossing the border was dangerous work on Smithfield’s midnight sanitizing crew. “We worked under intense conditions--with scalding hot steam under pressure, and chemicals like acid that are used for de-greasing. They are killing people.” In 2003, the outrages boiled over. Julio led a wildcat strike of 300 workers, and was fired for it.
Julio told us, "Black people want to raise their wages and receive a better treatment. The Latino people have the idea we are here just to work. And many think they are not going to be here forever. They think they are going to leave. This is an illusion. Everything they have is here. My idea is that we have to adapt to this place. To realize that we have to make it here and change it here. The problem will continue until the Latino people make our lives here and make the law respect this."
He leaned forward. His words came more quickly as he described feeling hunted. “It is modern slavery for me when people cannot walk the streets the way they want, cannot say what they want. We can see on TV in the documentaries what they did to Black people. So we see it is just the same now for us. That has to change. That’s what I’m fighting for.”
Later, in the home of several Black workers, a group of us were watching the DVD of Bob Avakian’s speech Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About. There is a passage where he explains how life for Black men in the Jim Crow South was like living under a permanent death sentence that could be carried out, at any moment, for any reason or for no reason at all. For most immigrant workers here, every moment is lived under a permanent sentence of deportation. They leave the house each time, not knowing if they will return to see their kids. They avoid any authorities--the police, school officials, even clinics--not knowing which encounter might trigger arrest and disaster--for any reason, or for no reason at all.
Skinning the Ox Twice... And Complex Contradictions
For ten years, Smithfield Foods, like so many other corporations, has actively recruited Mexican and Central American workers to come to their U.S. plants. Meat slaughterhouses can’t simply be moved to distant countries, since many of their products need to be delivered fresh. So instead of moving their operations to low wage areas, the huge monopolies of the “food processing industry” simply moved millions of third world workers here to viciously exploit them.
Smithfield sent out the word that it would hire anyone who walked through the doors of its Tar Heel plant, and the vans arrived in North Carolina bringing workers from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras.
This exploitation of immigrant labor has become a critical element in the larger U.S. economy. This ability to exploit workers under third world conditions, within its own borders, is a competitive advantage U.S. imperialism has in relation to its rivals in Europe and Japan.
However, while the U.S. ruling class needs to maintain this section of the proletariat in extremely exploited conditions, there are major ways in which the presence of millions of immigrants, many of them living an “illegal” existence, undermines the “cohesiveness” of American culture, politics and thinking in a time when the government is sharply concerned with security and stability.
Meanwhile, the post “Cold War” era of rapidly restructuring capitalism has shaken and upset the lifestyle that many American workers had come to expect. And so the rulers of the U.S. have also felt it necessary to pander to and promote an ugly nativist, racist anti-immigrant atmosphere. Ruling class mouthpieces like Lou Dobbs blame immigrants for the “decline of the middle class.”
The ox is skinned twice--immigrant workers are first exploited viciously, and then blamed for the worsening conditions of native-born workers.
In North Carolina, the election season of 2006 saw a real mounting hysteria targeting immigrants. One congresswoman demanded that North Carolina get its own federal immigration court to accelerate the deportation of immigrants. Local state representatives proposed new laws forbidding undocumented immigrants from renting apartments, getting drivers licenses, or even picking up state lottery winnings. Nightly news seems intent on portraying immigrants as a major cause of crime.
All this presents a mix of contradictions that both creates tremendous pressure on immigrants, and at the same time provides some cracks through which their struggle has erupted.
This whole swirl of contradictions found expression at Smithfield--and also got expressed in complex and sometimes surprising ways among different institutions and different class forces.
May First 2006--Suddenly It Was Time
Emma worked as a hotel maid after arriving from Costa Rica decades ago. She is now director of the Eastern North Carolina Workers Center. Over plates of waffles and whipped cream, she told us how things started to boil in the rural heart of North Carolina’s hog belt.
In early 2006, national plans emerged for May Day marches to demand amnesty and legalization for undocumented workers. Emma and other organizers just assumed they would caravan to nearby Wilmington, an hour away on the Atlantic coast, with a couple dozen of their closest union supporters.
Something else happened.
Workers inside the Smithfield plant circulated their own flier announcing that Wilmington march. They forgot to include a time or a place to meet. Overnight, the Workers Center's phone started ringing off the hook--with workers wanting to know the details.
Emma finally set up an informational meeting at a fast food joint outside Lumberton. And on that day, the surrounding streets were jammed with cars. Over 500 workers showed up. An informational meeting had become a rally.
Overnight, excited workers were demanding to hold their own march right there in Lumberton. And all kinds of organized forces had to scramble to respond to this independent initiative of the workers. Just a couple weeks before May First 2006, the Catholic church, the union organizers and a local businessman who does taxes for immigrant workers all came together to plan that march--and shape it politically.
In the area surrounding the Smithfield plant, Catholic churches have been some of the few places where often-isolated Latino immigrants found each other. As in other places around the U.S., the Catholic Church in North Carolina threw its structure into the effort to organize May First marches for “immigration reform.” A local Spanish-speaking priest emerged as a major spokesperson for that community--even as he pronounced himself strictly “neutral” in the conflict between the workers and their employers.
On May first, marchers were asked to leave their Mexican flags at home, and wave the U.S. flag.
Reflecting the complexity of all the contradictions monopoly capitalists have around immigrant labor, Smithfield Foods, and at least two other firms, donated money to help pay for the march's costs.
The outpouring on May First was more powerful than anyone had expected. At least 30,000 workers stayed away from work across the area--shutting down many of the industrial farms, chicken processing plants and slaughterhouses in several counties. Smithfield's Tar Heel plant, which "never shuts down," simply announced it had emergency repair work and closed its doors.
Long columns of cars, packed with workers, rolled out of the distant trailer parks and into the Robeson County fairgrounds. Over 5,000 immigrant people formed up that day and marched into Lumberton itself--under banners that read “We are not criminals” and “We only want to work.”
The disciplined march ended before City Hall, where a notoriously anti-immigrant congressman has his offices. Local racists and klansmen did not even dare make an appearance.
Lumberton is a sleepy Southern county seat straddling the interstate, exactly halfway between New York City and Florida. It had never seen anything like this. The political ground shook. Something new had announced its presence.
The immigrant workers had felt compelled to come "out of the shadows"--they felt they had to act, to protest, to fight or else simply allow their lives here to be ground to dust. And now they looked around and took notice of their own boldness and numbers.
Debate, Harassment and Major Federal Moves
Sharp debates raged among the Black and white people of this area. As the May First march passed the housing projects, Black people came out to line the streets and watch. Some stood with their arms crossed in open disapproval. Others openly shouted support, “Stay strong! Stay together!”
Wendy and Keith, white workers with ties to farmers in this area, told Revolution that there were quite a few white people who thought the Latino workers and the Smithfield plant had both brought changes to this area that weren't welcome.
And yet, at the same time, there were more positive sentiments expressed among both Black and white, that the immigrants had proven themselves to be decent people scrambling hard to survive, and that they were people who deserved a chance in life. And a number of Black people remarked that “Latinos stick together”--and suggested that this is something Black people should learn to do.
Several workers told Revolution that after May First the local sheriffs and state police acted like they had suddenly discovered the undocumented workers. Now many more immigrant workers were taken away in handcuffs from traffic stops for not having drivers licenses. Now there were state police prowling like wolves, every day, at key crossroads near the Tar Heel plant. And now there are rumors of workers being turned over to Immigration by those state police. One Latino told us he knew of a local sheriff who simply stopped and robbed a Mexican driver at a traffic stop--confident the immigrant couldn't report it.
Meanwhile, working behind the scenes, the federal government was preparing major moves and changes. Smithfield Foods was pressured to sign up with the Department of Homeland Security's "Employment Verification Pilot Program."
In an outrageous violation of the workers' rights, the company turned over the information on everyone working at their Smithfield plant to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And after Social Security checks, many hundreds of these workers--at least 600--had names and social security numbers that “didn't match." In October 2006, people were given two weeks to "clear things up"--and after those two weeks passed, Smithfield started firing people. The exact numbers they fired is not known--another company secret. But hundreds of workers knew they were next.
They simply weren’t going to have it.
"The Latinos have walked out!"
On November 16, 2006 hundreds of Latino workers walked out on first shift, shutting down the line, leaving the hogs swinging in the plant's frosty air. They gathered outside in a jubilant, chaotic scene that lasted for two days. A bullhorn was passed hand to hand, as people spoke their bitterness.
It is hard to describe those feelings of fear giving way to courage--stepping out of the shadows and finding a voice. And yet, the walkout also raised a central issue squarely: very few of the over 2,000 Black workers at the plant joined the walkout. They stayed on their jobs, often saying to themselves, “This is not our concern.” Some of the most backward even volunteered to stay and work a double shift.
Meanwhile, to the striking workers, the company that had seemed so intimidating and ruthless seemed suddenly powerless and confused. Workers wandered in and out of the plant as the company security stood by helplessly. Some workers came out to listen and then returned to work. Others slipped into the plant to urge more workers to walk out. Workers who arrived for each shift were asked to stay out, to join in. A series of homemade videos were posted on YouTube. And overall, 1,000 were out on strike at the height. And even on the second day, as the numbers dwindled, the company only managed to get one of their two production lines running.
Smithfield had been taken completely by surprise, and their higher-ups decided they couldn't allow a disruption of production so close to their crucial Christmas season. They agreed to rehire the fired workers. They agreed to meet with an elected strike committee to hear grievances--with the local Catholic priest participating as a “neutral” go-between.
Almost giddy at their sudden victory, the strikers celebrated and returned to work. This is a place where the company had responded to previous workers' actions with wholesale firings, and even the beating of organizers. It is a “company town” where the local sheriffs can be expected to show up and attack on command--and where the state authorities and media automatically throw their weight behind the capitalists. And so it was amazing, and unexpected, to have Smithfield simply fold to these demands after two days--when for over a decade they had refused to even hear any grievances of the workers.
Within days, at that promised meeting, Smithfield announced that workers now had only 60 more days to "clear up" any "no match" in their paperwork. They were firmly committed to pressing ahead with mass firings of the undocumented.
Meanwhile, the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, a national anti-immigrant organization, issued a public demand that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) carry out a raid on Smithfield Tar Heel plant, “We want ICE and Smithfield Packing to remove all illegal aliens from their workforce immediately."
And now, in mid-January, Smithfield has had 60 days to prepare a replacement workforce and perhaps organize an ICE raid to remove immigrant workers at gunpoint. Smithfield may well be about to restart mass firings , under orders from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
The conflict is far from resolved.
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