Local News

MLK Day celebrations hold special significance for church that backed union effort

Posted January 19, 2009 7:19 p.m. EST
Updated March 9, 2009 5:12 p.m. EDT

— A church in Fayetteville remembered the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday while celebrating a victory for thousands of factory workers.

Last month, workers at the Smithfield Foods Inc. hog-slaughtering plant in Tar Heel voted to unionize.

The First Baptist Church congregation viewed the union's accomplishment as another journey toward change. The tally was 2,041 to 1,879 in favor of the United Food and Commercial Workers at the Bladen County plant.

From the banishment of slavery, to the civil rights movement and to the final sermon of King – it all holds special significance for church members.

"Forty years from the time that sermon was delivered, we elected the first black man as president of the United States,” Rev. Marvin Morgan, coordinator for the Justice at Smithfield campaign, said.

On MLK Day 2007, nobody in the church knew Barack Obama would even run for president. The church was focused on helping workers from the Smithfield Foods get a paid King holiday. By 2008, they had it.

Workers were also clamoring to form a union at the plant. By this year, they had that too. That movement, Justice at Smithfield, launched in December 2006 and ended two years later.

"And on Dec. 31, I worked myself out of a job,” Morgan told about 200 people Monday at the First Baptist Church. “By the way, it’s one of the most joyful experiences I’ve ever had.”

The union vote came on Dec. 10, but it took boycotts and protests.

"I will acknowledge Smithfield ham tastes pretty good, but we did without it for months and months because of the working conditions at the Smithfield plant. This year, I'm gonna eat some ham,” Morgan said.

The UFCW had been trying since the plant opened 16 years ago to win the right to represent the Tar Heel workers. This time, the selling points of improved working conditions and better wages convinced enough workers to vote in favor of the union.

Smithfield, Va.-based Smithfield Foods is the world's largest pork-processor and hog-producer. The Tar Heel facility is considered the largest pork-processing plant in the world.

The plant, about 25 miles south of Fayetteville, employs 5,000 workers and slaughters up to 34,000 hogs a day.