Thirsty Smithfield workers win water, at last

The determination of a united workforce, backing from a union trying to help them organize and support from a national campaign have combined to result in a victory for workers in the livestock department at Smithfield Packing’s Tar Heel, N.C., plant.

On March 21 workers delivered a petition signed by all 90 employees in the Tar Heel livestock department demanding sanitary drinking water, warm water and soap to wash their hands and repair of the gates in the pens through which the pigs are moved.

The livestock department, which now for the first time in years has drinking water available for workers, is the department that moves the hogs from the trucks into the plant for slaughter — 32,000 of them on a typical day, 16,000 per shift.

Just hours before the workers delivered the petition, Smithfield’s director of human resources rushed in, ordering a crew to start fixing the longstanding problems. A new water cooler was installed on the spot and management personnel began taking inventory of the problems “so it looked like the company’s initiative rather than the results of the workers organizing and standing together,” according to Gene Bruskin, chairman of the Justice at Smithfield Campaign.

Poverty wages, brutal conditions and crippling injuries are the lot of 5,500 workers at the Tar Heel plant. Human Rights Watch and the National Labor Relations Board have cited Smithfield Packing for violating international human rights standards and for creating an environment of intimidation, racial tension and violence for workers seeking for 14 years now to be represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

For years workers in the livestock department have not had access to clean drinking water because all the fountains were broken. After having to beg, workers would wait for hours until supervisors brought water from another location. The water was foul and tasted of chlorine used to cover up its original odor.

Hogs and equipment in livestock departments at meatpacking plants are hosed down with water that contains high concentrations of bleach. Smithfield gave this same water to workers when they became unbearably thirsty, even passing out Gatorade packets to disguise the taste. For years there was no hot running water or soap for hand washing in the department and the restraining gates in the pens were broken, resulting in many injuries.

Dennis Pittman, spokesman for Smithfield’s Tar Heel plant, told the World that the improvements in the department last month “show that there is no need for a union to place itself between us and our workers. The workers got fast action without a union.”

The victory was won after “the workers decided enough is enough,” said Bruskin.

“Let everyone know that this is what the workers demanded,” he told the World. “It was not a company initiative. No one was fooled into thinking Smithfield cares about its workers.”

“The thanks,” Bruskin said, “goes to our thousands of supporters across the country, including the People’s Weekly World, for standing behind the workers as they unite to make their workplace safe.”

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