Immigrant workers lead wildcat strike

Solidarity is key to reinstating fired workers

Published Nov 22, 2006 1:10 AM

Five hundred workers walked off the job here at Smithfield Packing Nov. 16 in response to the recent firing of 75 immigrant workers, many of whom support efforts to unionize the plant. The next day, the plant was shut down again when over 1,000 workers, including many African Americans, walked out.

After the two-day walkout, Smithfield Packing bosses agreed to workers’ demands to halt the wholesale firings, and to reconsider their implementation of immigration policies in the plant. For the first time, the company also agreed to meet with a group of workers elected by the workers themselves to further negotiate about plant issues and employee concerns. That meeting will take place Nov. 21.

Workers have been struggling for 12 years to bring a union to the world’s biggest hog processing plant, located in a poor, rural region of eastern North Carolina.

North Carolina is a “right to work”—that is, officially anti-union—state. The work force is the second least unionized in the country. There is a fast growing new Latin@ population.

Against this background, Smithfield Packing has spent millions of dollars in a campaign to intimidate the workers and keep the union out.

When the United Food and Commercial Workers initiated an organizing campaign at Smithfield in 1994, the work force was mostly African American. Now, it is at least 65 percent Latin@, about 30 percent African American, with the rest white and Native workers.

The company has used racism, fear and other intimidation tactics to keep the union out. In the 1997 election, Smithfield was found guilty of violating over 40 federal labor laws. But the bosses tied up the court decision in appeals for eight years.

As detailed in a 2005 Human Rights Watch report titled “Blood, Sweat, and Tears,” Smithfield workers have been maimed, injured and killed as a result of the working conditions in the plant. Union supporters and organizers have been wrongfully imprisoned and beaten by Smithfield’s private police force.

Over the past several months, support for the union has grown. This, coupled with the company’s loss of its last appeal of the National Labor Relations Board decision, has encouraged the workers who say they feel they are close to winning a historic victory and a contract.

In the weeks leading up to the walkout the company fired 75 Latin@ workers claiming their Social Security paperwork could not be verified. Some of these workers had been at the plant for two to three years. In an interview at Smithfield, one worker said the workers believed the company was using the paperwork claim as an excuse to fire union supporters.

New immigrant workers are realizing their power. On May Day 2006 thousands of Smithfield workers and their families united behind the immigrant-rights struggle. The May Day demonstrations around the country showed that this community has power and that unity behind the immigrant-rights struggle and the struggle for worker justice can move the overall working-class struggle forward.

The campaign for Justice at Smithfield continues. It will not end until the workers win a contract and union recognition.

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