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a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Pay attention to the Smithfield Tar Heel walk-out

Posted by Thomas Nephew on November 18th, 2006

A press release by the UFCW’s Justice at Smithfield campaign:

Around 9am on Thursday, November 16, 2006, hundreds of workers at Smithfield’s Tar Heel, NC plant initiated a walk-out and work stoppage in protest of Smithfield’s unjust labor practices. For too long now, Smithfield has engaged in a vicious campaign of abuse, fear, intimidation, harassment and violence. Dozens of workers, including union supporters, have been fired by Smithfield in the last few days. The company is targeting and discharging workers, mainly immigrants, over social security number discrepancies. On Thursday, Smithfield issued notices of discharge to dozens of workers which precipitated the spontaneous walkout. By mid-morning on Thursday, hundreds of workers on the morning-shift poured out of the Plant and congregated outside in protest of Smithfield’s recent, as well as ongoing, actions. The walk out continued this morning. Hundreds of workers arrived at the plant this morning at 5 AM but did not go to work.

Reports indicate that over 1,000 of the Tar Heel plant’s 5,000 workers have walked off the job in protest, demanding an end to unjust firings and retaliation at the plant, and the timely rehire of all unfairly terminated workers. You can add your voice to theirs here.

Smithfield is one of the largest meat producers and processors in the world. The company is notorious for an abysmal safety record (463 injuries in the first half of 2006 alone), worker intimidation, ignoring labor rulings, and outright violence. One of the most chilling twists was the formation of its own police force (now decertified) at the Tar Heel plant, as allowed under North Carolina law. From the Human Rights Watch report Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers’ Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants:

There are troubling indications that Smithfield police, both before and after the formation of the “special police” force, are used to create an atmosphere of fear and intimidation to chill workers’ organizing efforts.

It’s hard to imagine more blatantly illegal anti-union intimidation, and I hope the new Democratic Congress will investigate just how low the NLRB has sunk to allow such things to happen. The UFCW has another summary, “The Case Against Smithfield.” Sue Sturgis of “Facing South”rightly describes the action’s significance:

Clearly, the major events of the last two days — a spontaneous worker uprising at a key industry, in the 2nd-least unionized state in the country — are the culmination of deep and growing problems that have reached the breaking point. Whatever becomes of this particular burst of action, these fundamental issues will remain.

In a week when Bush paid lip service to the memory of Martin Luther King by vowing to put more marble on the Mall, it’s time we remember that King’s last campaign was to help the sanitation workers striking in Memphis. Writing about that today, Sandy Levinson contrasted the world then with “the world of our own, when it is, among other things, unthinkable that national attention would be focused on a strike by sanitation workers.”

It’s time to bring Smithfield to heel, and it’s time to pay attention to working conditions and the right to organize in this country.

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UPDATE, 11/20: Forwarding news from Facing South, Lindsay Beyerstein (“Majikthise”) writes that the walkout is over for now. While noting that most of the immigrant workers involved are legal residents or citizens, Beyerstein adds: “As long as we penalize undocumented workers instead of penalizing the bosses who hire them, illegal immigration will remain a godsend for exploitative bosses.”

3 Responses to “Pay attention to the Smithfield Tar Heel walk-out”

  1. Nell Says:

    Thanks for this, Thomas. Zack Exley had a dKos diary that I recommended, but it scrolled on by without much notice. Labor militancy is especially remarkable on the part of vulnerable-to-deportation immigrant workers. The fight for representation has gone on at the Tar Heel plant for years now, against a background of horrific conditions.
    One of the hopes I have for Jim Webb is that he’ll stand up for labor rights in a vocal and effective way. “Right to work”: one of the earliest and most pernicious right-wing frames.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    I imagine you saw Comrade Webb by Billmon (“Whiskey Bar”)? He quotes Webb in the WSJ:“In the age of globalization and outsourcing, and with a vast underground labor pool from illegal immigration, the average American worker is seeing a different life and a troubling future. Trickle-down economics didn’t happen.”
    Billmon adds:“That’s beautiful stuff. Paul Wellstone could have written it. So could Bernie Sanders, although Bernie actually might find it a little too radical for his tastes. But the last person — well, almost the last person — on earth I would expect to emerge as a tribune of good old-fashioned New Deal populism (or, dare I say it, democratic socialism) is fightin’ Jim Webb, Ronald Reagan’s favorite Marine.”
    …Now I’ve read it through myself. It really is very good. If he’s a conservative, we need more of ’em.

  3. eRobin Says:

    I first saw the Webb piece via Kevin Hayden at the American Street and was very impressed as well.
    This is a great post, Thomas. You always link to a site where we can pitch in. Thanks for that.

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