Meat Packer Agrees To New Vote at Tar Heel Plant; Union Isn’t Buying

Posted January 26, 2007 4:44 p.m. EST
Updated January 26, 2007 10:55 p.m. EST

— Smithfield Packing has given in to demands for a new union vote at its massive pork-packing plant in Tar Heel after a 15-year battle. The company, which won disputed unionization votes in 1993 and 1997, also has agreed to pay more than $1 million in back wages to terminated employees and to pay half the cost of an overseer of a new election.

However, the tense situation is far from resolved at the world’s largest pork-processing facility.

A spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in Tar Heel questioned how an election could be fair, given the fact that many Latino workers are not showing up for work. The union is irate about the arrest Wednesday of 21 migrant workers by the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement and the pointed out that half of the plant’s work force didn’t show up for work Thursday.

Most were Latinos.On Friday, a union spokesperson said he saw very few Latino workers. Nearly half the plant’s work force of 5,000 is Latino.

Absent workers on Thursday reduced production at the plant to some 8,000 hogs from the usual number of up to 17,000, said Eduardo Pena, the director of the Smithfield campaign for the union.

“There is a lot of fear among the immigrant community,” Pena told on Friday afternoon. “It’s interesting that the company talks about an election when half the work force didn’t show up yesterday.”

In a statement issued in Washington, D.C., the union said an election can’t be scheduled because all issues related to a court case have not been resolved.

“No elections at the Tar Heel plant can be scheduled because there is still a lack of compliance and outstanding unfair labor practices (ULPs) against Smithfield which present a bar to an election,” the union said. “The most serious charges pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals found Smithfield had beaten, fired, falsely arrested and threatened to call immigration authorities on workers who walked out in 2003 to protest abusive working conditions. Elections cannot go forward while ULPs are pending.”

Smithfield Packing issued a press release earlier Friday announcing its decision about the election. The company said it would pay $1.1 million in back wages plus interest to employees terminated in 1997 in the battle over that election. However, a Smithfield Packing executive said the company did not agree with a federal court ruling about having another election.

"Even though we disagree with the findings, we have complied with the court's decision and are ready to move forward,” said Joe Luter IV, president and chief operating officer of Smithfield Packing. “I hope the union will work with us to schedule a secret ballot election as soon as possible.

“We believe our employees should have the right to vote on whether they want to be represented by a union,” he added. “It's time to let the employees vote.”

Pena said the company’s decision to call for an election now struck him as “unreal,” given the current situation in Tar Heel.

Because of the arrests on Wednesday and Smithfield Packing’s announced plans to fire workers in a dispute over incorrect Social Security numbers, Pena said many workers are intimidated.

“They continue to use tactics to terrorize workers, Pena said. “That is just something that shows how much of a disconnect between reality and a fair profit that these people have.”

The company and workers also had a dispute over whether employees could take time off for the Martin Luther King holiday.

Smithfield Packing is a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.