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A Battle over Unions at Smithfield Pork

Dave DeWitt

The number 17,000 is written in bright blue marker on a white board on the wall of the Smithfield processing plant. That's the goal: 17,000 hogs the workers here will disassemble during the morning shift.

Each day, the workers on the cut floor steal a glance at the wall, looking for that number. If it's a big one, like today, the hogs will come down the line at a furious pace.

Six days a week, for more than seven hours, they will stand in the same place, slicing and de-boning the hogs with knives as long as their arms. This Saturday you may be barbecuing, while at Smithfield's Tar Heel factory, over 2,000 people are disassembling your meat.

"Pulling loins from the line is one of the most highly skilled jobs," says Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman. "This is where your pork chops come from."

The work is hard and dangerous, and the employee turnover rate is understandably high. Smithfield hires 5,000 workers each year at a starting salary of $9.20 an hour, or about $21,000 a year. Most quit in the first 90 days. Those that make it longer hope for a promotion away from the most dangerous jobs.

That's what happened to Nora Gamarro. After starting on the cut floor, she was promoted to the laundry and now assembles boxes. She grew up in Chile and came to the plant eight years ago from New Jersey after her husband passed away. She admits her job is tough, but she has little use for a union.

"My husband worked for many years in New Jersey, in the glass company," she says. "He was a machine operator there. And they had a union, and my husband always said to me, they don't do nothing. He saw many people with problems, and they never helped. He said they only take the check, the money from us. That's what I heard from my husband."

Employees talk often about a union. Barbara Lee hears about it when she takes her break. She came to the plant 13 years ago after the Black and Decker plant down the road closed. Her first job was trimming the fat off of tenderloins. Now she makes $13.00 an hour as a line leader.

"This morning a lady was talking to me about a union. Somebody came to her house, and she started talking to them about the Lord," Lee says. "And she says, 'You're not going to be here for me, but I know the Lord is going to be there for me.'"

Lee and Gamarro both receive full medical benefits and make more money than they could anywhere else in the area. This year, for the first time, they got the Martin Luther King Jr., holiday off. Lee says Smithfield takes good care of its employees.

Reverend Graylan Hagler disagrees. He's preaching to a standing room only crowd at the first Baptist Church in Fayetteville on Martin Luther King Jr., Day.

"We're about to tell Smithfield that it's got to do right by the workers!" he shouts to the congregation. "That it's got to allow the workers to organize! That it's got to allow the workers to bring justice into their lives and into their communities and into their families! Somebody give a praise to God for that."

The United Food and Commercial Workers along with local churches have organized a rally for Smithfield workers. They wear bright yellow T-shirts and sit in the first few pews. Some hold their children as they stand and sing along with the choir.

These employees describe a company that is abusive and indifferent to the health of the workers. When the choir finishes, some of them tell stories of losing fingers and other painful injuries.

The only thing nearly all employees can agree on is that things have gotten better. Gone are the days when Smithfield's private police force dragged union sympathizers from the plant. Gene Bruskin is the lead organizer for the U.F.C.W.'s campaign against Smithfield. He credits the courage of the workers for the slight improvements, but cautions that the fight is far from over.

"Only with a written contract that guarantees that these, and other improvements will be made, will there ever be any justice," Bruskin says.

Any agreement between Smithfield and the union is still a long way off. Neither side is willing to accept the other's conditions for a union vote. In October, Smithfield filed a lawsuit against the union under the RICO statutes used by prosecutors to fight organized crime.

It's a tactic that Rev. Hagler finds offensive, and he preaches as much to the congregation.

"What they're trying to say is that anybody who stands by the gospel and says, 'Thus sayeth the Lord, and Smithfield, you're not abiding by the Lord,' are somehow we are guilty of organized crime," shouts Hagler in a voice that booms inside the small church. "If it is an organized crime to speak for justice, then I am guilty of participating in organized crime, because we're going to organize with people of justice all around this country!"

The only certainty is that the 15-year-old fight to unionize the Smithfield hog processing plant will continue in this poor and forgotten corner of North Carolina.

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