Black/Brown Coalition Fueled Big Union Win

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.

Packinghouse laborers then had to learn to make management listen to those demands by circulating petitions and forming delegations to demand changes.

In 2007 Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and company managers cooperated in two immigration raids that produced a climate of terror that organizer Eduardo Peña likened to "a nuclear bomb." Immigrant workers left the plant in droves. The Smithfield raids were two of many in recent years, used to punish workers when they've tried to improve conditions.

The plant's U.S. citizen-workers felt the effects along with the immigrants. For months afterwards, the organizing campaign was effectively dead, with many leaders deported and union activity halted by fear. It was only when African-American workers who'd fought to win the King holiday became the core of a new generation of leaders that the struggle to build the union could continue.

If black and Latino immigrant workers hadn't found a way to work together, the union drive would have ended with the raids. And if the company and ICE had succeeded in convincing half the plant that the other half really had no right to work because they lacked legal immigration status, workers would have been unwilling and unable to defend each other.

In the end, both groups found a common interest in better wages and working conditions. But they also had to agree to defend the right of each worker to her or his job, and treat any unfair firing as an attack on the union -- whether the victim was black, Mexican, or Puerto Rican.

The Smithfield firings were made possible by employer sanctions, the federal law that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented workers. The law makes working a crime for people without papers, and became the pretext for firing immigrant union leaders. That's why the AFL-CIO voted in 1999 to call for the law's repeal. The Smithfield raids show that changing immigration law is as necessary for organizing unions as passing reforms like EFCA.

Outside the Tar Heel plant, the union grew roots in working-class communities, and became part of workers' lives. They took English classes in its office and marched in demonstrations for civil rights. That coalition turned the company's anti-labor actions against it, exposing its record in the place where Smithfield was most vulnerable – in the eyes of its consumers. When store customers discovered the conditions in the plant and the company's history of fighting its workers' efforts to organize, many lost their appetite for Smithfield meats.

The election result was the product of a long-term organizing effort. With a similar commitment, other unions can do the same, no matter how big the plant or how anti-union the employer. But it takes a strategy based on building a real union in the workplace and community. That's what workers did at Smithfield.

And with changes in labor and immigration law, workers won't have to fight a 15-year war to accomplish the same goal.


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