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Black/Brown Coalition Fueled Big Union Win

The successful union strategy relied on uniting a diverse workforce of African Americans, Puerto Ricans and immigrant Mexicans.

When workers at Smithfield Foods' North Carolina packing house voted in the union on Dec. 11, 2008 the longest, most bitter anti-union campaign in modern labor history went down to defeat. Sixteen years ago workers there began organizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers. The successful union strategy relied on organizing resistance to immigration-related firings, and uniting a diverse workforce of African Americans, Puerto Ricans and immigrant Mexicans.

In 1994 and 1997 the union was defeated in elections later thrown out by federal authorities, because the company created an atmosphere of violence and terror in the plant. In 1997 one worker was beaten after the vote count. Company guards were given the ability to arrest workers, who were held in a detention center in the plant that they called the company jail. Many workers were fired for union activity. And in recent years, immigration raids swept the plant in the middle of the union drive, adding to the climate of intimidation.

It was no surprise, then, that the pro-union vote (2,041 to 1,879) set off celebrations in house trailers and ramshackle homes in Tar Heel, Red Springs, Santa Paula, and all the tiny working-class towns spread from Fayetteville down to the South Carolina border. Union membership in North Carolina is the lowest in the country. But Smithfield workers were not just celebrating a vote count. Their victory was the culmination of an organizing strategy that accomplished what many have said U.S. unions can no longer do -- organize a multi-racial membership in huge, privately-owned factories.

Five thousand people work in the world's largest pork slaughterhouse, where they kill and cut apart 32,000 hogs every day. Efforts by the modern U.S. labor movement to organize factories the size of the Tar Heel plant have not been very successful for the last two decades. In fact, private-sector unionization has fallen below 8 percent of the workforce. The giant electronics plants of California’s Silicon Valley have an anti-union strategy so intimidating that unions haven't even tried to organize them for years. Japanese car manufacturers that built assembly plants in the South have successfully kept workers from organizing, in spite of efforts by the auto union.

The price for labor's failure to organize Japanese plants became clear in December's Congressional debate over the auto bailout proposal. Southern Republican Senators demanded that the United Auto Workers agree to gut its union contracts to match the non-union wages and conditions at Nissan, Honda and BMW. The presence of the non-union plants threatens to destroy the union, and the same dilemma exists in industry after industry.

Unions are pinning their hopes on the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). This proposal would require a company like Smithfield to negotiate a union contract if a majority of workers sign union cards. It would avoid the kind of union election that took place at Smithfield in 1997, where workers voted in an atmosphere of violence and terror. EFCA would also put penalties on employers who fire workers for union activity.

At Smithfield, the company rehired in 2006 workers it had fired for union activity in 1994. But it was only obliged to pay the fired workers for their lost wages, and even was allowed to deduct any money they'd earned during the decade that their cases wound through the legal system. EFCA would substantially restrict the kind of anti-union campaign Smithfield mounted for 15 years.

But EFCA by itself will not build strong unions, which workers can use not just to win elections but to make substantial changes in the workplace. The union at Smithfield wasn't created on election day. Workers had already organized it in the battles that preceded the vote. They did much more than sign union cards. They had to lose their fear, and show open support for the demands they'd chosen themselves -- like lower line speed to reduce injuries, rehiring workers fired because of their immigration status, or giving workers a paid holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday.

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