Union win at Smithfield points to importance of Employee Free Choice Act

TAR HEEL, N.C. (PAI)--After 15 years, three elections and rampant company labor law-breaking during the campaigns before the first two, the United Food and Commercial Workers finally won recognition at Smithfield company’s giant pork processing and packing plant in Tar Heel, N.C.

The Dec. 11 victory, by a 2,041-1,879 margin, will lead to creation of a new UFCW local to represent the 4,700 workers at the world’s largest pork-processing factory, which is also located in the nation’s least-unionized state. As part of a court settlement leading to the latest vote, Smithfield agreed to immediately recognize the results, rather than appealing the election to the National Labor Relations Board.

“It’s been a 15-year struggle, but the important message out of it is that not only did UFCW stay with it, but the workers did, too,” union President Joe Hansen said.

“When workers have a fair process, they choose a voice on the job,” said UFCW Organizing Director Pat O’Neill. “This is a great victory for the Tar Heel workers. I know they are looking forward to sitting down at the bargaining table with Smithfield to negotiate a contract.

“The UFCW has (26) constructive union contracts with Smithfield plants around the country. Those contracts benefit workers, the company and the community. We believe the workers here in Tar Heel can achieve a similar agreement,” he added.

Thirteen-year Tar Heel worker Ronnie Ann Simmons, who has gone through all three votes -- 1994, 1997 and now -- at the plant, said she and her colleagues are thrilled.

“This moment has been a long time coming. We stuck together, and now we have a say on the job,” she added. Simmons and her colleagues “never lost hope and never stopped fighting,” added union spokeswoman Jill Cashen. “And they went through hell” to get their union.

A new feature of this third campaign to unionize Tar Heel was spontaneous inside organizing by the workers and organized confrontations with managers over working conditions and other issues. One such confrontation was over a GOP Bush regime Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid, seeking workers to arrest, at the plant last year. Management was forced to stop turning over workers’ names to ICE.

The win at the plant is also important because Tar Heel is the largest pork-processing plant in an industry infamous for worker abuse. “This drive should be important to the whole labor movement, because it shows workers are ready to sign up if you give them the chance,” as the Employee Free Choice Act would, Cashen said.