It took three campaigns and over 14 years for workers at the largest hog slaughterhouse in the world to form a union. The 2008 labor victory at the Smithfield Foods, Inc. plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina—a region where unions have long struggled—was perhaps the most improbable in recent US history.
Now, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) local 1208 has its sights on a nearby chicken plant. To form a union, organizers—many of whom are workers at the Smithfield plant—are banking on the strategy that won six years ago.
In the first two attempts at the Smithfield plant, management used illegal tactics to crush the hastily organized campaigns of out-of-town activists. But after a decade of failed initiatives, activists planted themselves within the rural community, determined to stay for the long haul. The organizers established a worker’s center and recruited locals to help lead the campaign.
After a few years of putting down roots, the campaign blossomed onto the state and national levels. Civil rights leaders, clergy, and students set out to publicly shame Smithfield. Workers told their stories of mistreatment to audiences in New York, Boston, and Chicago. In 2008, a vote was held, and the union won.
The Reverend Mac Legerton, executive director of the Center for Community Action, a social justice organization in Lumberton, NC, said the third campaign won because organizers built lasting relationships with the community. Tom Clarke, the lead UFCW organizer in that campaign, said that the long-term, community focus was “very different” from how the UFCW normally ran its campaigns.
Clarke said those community-based tactics should be implemented in labor fights across the country, with Smithfield as a model. The victory was an anomaly in an anti-union region and era. North Carolina, like every other state south of Maryland and east of Texas, has a “right-to-work” law that removes the requirement that workers at unionized plants pay their union dues, undermining its very structure.
In this anti-union culture, the Smithfield campaign was “one of the toughest...in modern US history,” said Keith Ludlum, president of the local 1208 in Tar Heel. But despite the campaign’s unexpected triumph, Clarke said, the Smithfield story remains “almost like a secret” in the labor movement—its lessons have yet to be learned.
Ludlum calls the Smithfield plant “the boss-hog of all slaughterhouses,” and for good reason. The plant employs around 5,000 people to kill and package 34,000 pigs a day. The size of multiple Wal-Marts, the plant is active all but three and a half hours a day. From highway 87, you can’t see the lagoon of hog shit behind the plant, but you can smell it. When the wind blows, the stench travels a mile down the road and creeps through shut car windows.
Slaughterhouse work is fast-paced and dangerous. Workers stand by conveyor belts and moving lines of hooked meat, performing the same action for hours at a time. To maximize profit, supervisors run the lines at high speeds. As the meat rushes past, workers must make incisive cuts with large knives.
“Say you got 17 people on that line,” explained Leonard Walker, who has worked at the plant for 19 years, from the kill floor to the warehouse. “That line is supposed to run so that every third person [cuts] a piece of that meat. But when you got 17 pieces coming every 17 seconds...accidents do happen.”
Legerton describes Smithfield’s business model as “low wages, high production, high risk of injury, and extreme temperatures.” Legerton compares the work to migrant farm labor. “In my wildest dreams I never imagined that we as a nation would take the model of migrant farm work and expand it from the farm to the factory,” he said.
The horror stories are well-documented, and numerous—enough to fill a 21st-century re-write of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s harrowing 1906 account of the Chicago meatpacking industry. “I have been out there when people died and they kept on working,” Walker said. “The supervisors don’t want to stop the line.”
Smithfield plants in other states were unionized, and the company respected existing union contracts when it purchased new plants. But “Smithfield built [the Tar Heel plant] from day one thinking they wouldn’t have a union,” said Eduardo Peña, an organizer on the third campaign. The company built the plant in a poor, rural area where high-paying jobs are hard to find.
In the 1990s, the company achieved vertical integration in North Carolina—it owned the plant, the trucks, the feed, and the millions of pigs—and perhaps feared that a union would disrupt the smooth operation of that system, Peña speculated.
UFCW organizers first tried to unionize the plant in 1994, and again in 1997, hoping to bargain for higher wages and safer working conditions. Both times, workers voted against joining the union.
Legerton said the failure of the first two campaigns did not surprise him. “The organizers ran the campaign out of a motel, and had no major office or investment in the community,” he said.
Poor organizing wasn’t the only obstacle in the way of a union victory. The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruled that Smithfield used illegal tactics to intimidate workers at both elections in 2004. Smithfield fired workers who campaigned for the union, like Ludlum, the current president of the local 1208. And on the morning of the 1997 election, police in riot gear formed a “gauntlet,” standing on either side of the plant’s entry path, said Gene Bruskin, a UFCW organizer.
“With all these white guys standing there ready to shoot [the workers], I wouldn’t call that a free vote,” Bruskin said. At the time, most of the plant’s workers were black. While the vote was being counted, police beat up an organizer, Bruskin said.
Legerton said the failed campaigns—the second especially—were vulnerable to Smithfield’s anti-union tactics because the organizing was ineffective. “[The second campaign] was shorter and done with haste,” Legerton said. “And this led to a very violent attack on the organizers at the plant on the night of the vote.”
Clarke agreed that the approach was flawed. “It was the normal way that unions operated,” he said. “You would bring in folks from around the country...None had any particular investment in the community.”
That strategy doesn’t work in the rural south, Legerton said. For a rural, southern community to support an outside organization, they must feel assured of a long term commitment, he said.
Instead, rural North Carolinians came to view the UFCW as “a fly-by-night organization that might bring in 100 people for an election, but then we’d be back to whatever cities we were from,” Clarke said.
Legerton gave “constructive criticism” to UFCW organizers during the first two campaigns, he said. But it wasn’t until the third and final campaign that organizers took his suggestions to heart.
Clarke arrived in Tar Heel in October 2002, he said, determined to try a new strategy. He led a team of five or six UFCW organizers, including Peña, who initially felt that being assigned to the Smithfield plant was a punishment.
“The stigma of the previous two campaigns was very strong in our organization,” Peña said. “People were like, ‘what did you do wrong?’”
From the start, the organizers took a humbler tack and focused on slowly building connections within the community. “A large part was acknowledging that we’re not the mighty union coming in to provide salvation for these workers,” Peña said. “It has to come from the inside.”
When the organizers arrived in Tar Heel, they worked out of a trailer within view of the plant. Smithfield had, by that time, established its own police force, and Clarke knew that workers wouldn’t feel safe coming to the trailer, he said. So the organizers quickly moved to a building in Red Springs, a town in neighboring Robeson County where many Latino workers lived, and established a worker’s center.
To introduce themselves to the workers, the organizers knocked on doors in small towns and trailer parks, where the majority of plant workers lived. Some of those workers joined the organizing team, along with veteran North Carolina labor activists. Clarke said he was determined to include more locals on the team. “Within a few weeks...I got workers getting in the car with me and talking to their co-workers,” Peña said. “It was worker to worker.”
At the workers’ center in Red Springs, organizers tried to show workers what a union could do for them. They brought in attorneys to help injured workers receive workers’ compensation. Five days a week, a “certified immigration specialist” from Texas counseled immigrant workers, Clarke said. By acting like a union, the organizers showed their commitment to the workers and took away some of the stigma surrounding unions.
The organizers established a communication network inside the plant: at least one worker in each department kept their co-workers up to date on what the workers’ center was doing, Clarke said. The network grew to 300 people.
Organizers also connected with community leaders like Father Carlos Arce, then the priest at San Andrés, a Catholic church in Red Springs. Arce had the trust of many Latino workers, and his support of the union would eventually prove vital.
Legerton said he was “very pleased” that the organizers built a base of trust and support before trying to make big changes in the plant. “The community began to sense and understand that they were here to stay,” he said.
With the community groundwork in place, activists took the next step by organizing small actions within the plant. One was initiated by Ludlum, who was given his job back in 2004— after a 10-year exile—when the NLRB issued its injunction against Smithfield. Ludlum could have continued with his better-paying job, he said, but he chose to return to the plant and organize.
Ludlum, who worked in the livestock division unloading and moving pigs, wrote “UNION TIME” on his hard-hat. Supervisors forbade him from doing so on the grounds of uniform violation, even though other workers often displayed non-political messages on their clothes and hats.
But Ludlum resisted, management caved, and more people began writing pro-union messages on their coats and hats: “God Bless the Union,” Ludlum remembers one person writing. After this concession, the emboldened livestock workers demanded clean drinking water.
At the time, their water coolers were prepared by livestock workers who brought in contamination from handling the pigs and their excrement. Ludlum refused to drink the contaminated water and often became light-headed from the hot, grueling labor when his bottled water ran out, he said.
The workers won their clean water cooler, as well. As the small victories began to pile up, Ludlum sensed that more workers were adopting a “no fear philosophy.”
Elsewhere in the plant, a group of Latino workers walked off the line in protest when the company took away their “second knife.” Workers were traditionally provided two knives—the second served as a replacement when the first became dull. The workers protested that taking away the extra knife took away the jobs of people who had to sharpen the plant’s knives, and increased the number of injuries, because more people were using dull knives. Peña helped the workers write a petition to bring back the second knife.
“All of a sudden we have 150 signatures from one department” in one day, Peña said. “They got their knife back.”
Ludlum said the small victories had enormous meaning for the workers. “People who always had their heads bent over” stood up for their rights for the first time, he said. “Those people will never be the same. From then on, they will always demand more.”
Organizers also took on the company police force, which in their view existed only to intimidate workers. “This is a meatpacking plant, it’s not a nuclear plant, it’s not an arsenal,” Clarke said. “What could possibly be the reason for having a company police force? It was clearly to keep workers from exercising their rights.”
The company police had all the powers given to local police—they carried guns and drove police cruisers, and they could follow workers off the plant property and detain them in a jail cell within the plant. The powers had been granted by a permit from the state of North Carolina. After constant pressure from the organizers, as well as from Human Rights Watch, Smithfield decided not to renew the permit in 2005. The police force was scaled back to an average security force, with limited powers of arrest and patrol.
There was soon an unexpected sense of momentum, Peña said. “All of a sudden we started getting things done. It was a little bit of luck, and timing—planets aligning.” Suddenly, the national UFCW could not ignore what was going on in Tar Heel.
As the campaign gained steam, UFCW organizers saw an opportunity for expansion. Gene Bruskin took over for Clarke as lead organizer, just as the campaign began to open onto the state and national levels.
“It was completely clear to me that it didn’t matter what the workers did [in the plant], that was not going to be enough,” Bruskin said. “Here they are, these people in one of the poorest counties in the country. No one, even in North Carolina, knows where Tar Heel is.”
Organizers recruited a coalition of civil rights leaders, clergymen, local college students, and former workers to target Smithfield products by leafletting outside North Carolina Harris Teeter stores, a grocery chain. The coalition also targeted Smithfield’s publicity queen extraordinaire: celebrity chef Paula Deen.
Deen was doing a promotional tour at the time and touting Smithfield products wherever she went. “Imagine you have a hundred people in line to get their books signed [by Deen],” Bruskin said. “And we’re up front in her face, and we unroll a scroll with a message from the workers. And she’d start screaming.”
The actions were meant to force the national spotlight on Tar Heel and let Smithfield feel the heat. Bruskin called it an “unrelenting push.” When Deen appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2007, the show would not permit her to say the word “Smithfield,” Ludlum said.
Organizers also sent workers to major cities in the northeast and midwest to tell their stories of mistreatment to whoever would listen, including religious groups, immigrant rights organizations, and other meatpacking workers. In response, the city of Boston and the United Church of Christ released statements condemning Smithfield.
At the same time, actions around the plant escalated. Thousands of immigrant workers—many, if not most, undocumented—organized a march on May Day in 2006. The workers marched through a historically black neighborhood in Lumberton, handing out fliers that had the face of Cesar Chavez alongside the face of Martin Luther King, Jr.
In the heat of the campaign, an unexpected immigration crackdown dramatically changed the racial demographics of the plant and stalled the movement.
In November 2006, The News & Observer reported that Smithfield sent letters to 640 immigrant workers telling them their identity information did not match government records, and fired about 50 of them. Smithfield officials said they were complying with US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Fed up, Latino workers staged a massive walkout in protest. About 1,500 workers walked off the lines, Bruskin said. Organizers, eager to resolve the crisis, met with the protesting workers and wrote up a list of demands. “Our role [as organizers] was really to support the workers, not to tell them what to do,” Bruskin said.
The workers demanded that Smithfield give the fired workers’ jobs back, rescind the 640 letters, not punish the workers who walked out, and begin meeting with a worker representative to address issues within the plant.
Smithfield refused to meet with either the workers or the union organizers. Father Carlos Arce, the priest at San Andrés, stepped in to negotiate.
Organizers would not, perhaps, have had Arce’s help if they had not established strong connections early on with the Latino community of Red Springs. “It cannot be understated that the UFCW demonstrating an ongoing commitment to those workers set the stage for what happened later with the walkout,” Clarke said.
Arce, who could not be reached for an interview, emerged from the meeting with Smithfield officials victorious. He got the company to agree to all of the workers’ demands—in writing.
But months later, in January 2007, Smithfield allowed ICE officials full access to the plant. ICE took 21 workers off the line and arrested them. The following August, ICE arrested 28 workers in their homes in the middle of the night, using addresses provided by Smithfield.
Walker remembers hearing from one of his friends who was arrested along with his wife. Authorities had separated the couple from their infant children. “He called me and said he was in Texas,” Walker said. “His kids were in Lumberton [North Carolina] in a mobile home.”
“Angel,” an undocumented immigrant who works in the plant’s laundry room, said the crackdown made immigrant workers afraid to openly support the union. Angel, who asked that his named be changed for this article, walked in the May Day march “as an immigrant and a member of [Arce’s] church,” he said. But after the walkout, immigrant workers like Angel didn’t want to participate in marches or in-plant actions, he said. “A lot of the support disappeared.”
Over the nine months between the walkout and the nighttime raid, around 1,100 Latino workers— about a fifth of the plant’s workforce—left the plant, The News & Observer reported. The workers went from being about two-thirds Latino to one-third, Bruskin said.
Despite the losses, the demographic shift ended up helping the union’s cause, Clarke said. The majority of workers who remained didn’t have the fear of deportation hanging over them and were more able to take part in the campaign, he added.
The national side of the movement persisted: activists continued the actions at grocery stores and Paula Deen events. Protesters flocked to the 2007 and 2008 shareholder meetings at Smithfield’s Virginia headquarters.
Smithfield tried to stamp out the actions at grocery stores by filing a lawsuit against the UFCW in October 2007 under a federal racketeering law, claiming millions of dollars in damages from the union’s public campaign. But faced with increasing pressure, Smithfield dropped the lawsuit a year later. The UFCW reached a settlement with the company: the union would drop its public campaign if the workers would be allowed a fair union vote.
Both sides made good on their promises. When the vote was held in December 2008, the union won.
As part of the settlement, union organizers were able to read internal Smithfield communications relating to the campaign, Peña said. It was a rare chance to see which of the union’s tactics had actually “freaked them out,” he added. The three things that unsettled company officials the most, Peña said, were the actions inside the plant, the demonstrations outside Harris Teeter stores, and the targeting of Paula Deen.
But Legerton tells a slightly different story of the campaign. In his view, the in-plant actions and the public campaign—which he classified as issue-based and movement-based organizing, respectively—would never have been possible without the initial years of community-based organizing, in which activists built deep relationships with the people of Bladen and Robeson counties.
“Any successful campaign to change anything in our democracy will have elements of all three [tactics],” said Legerton, who has spent decades organizing in rural North Carolina around issues including health care, poverty, and environmental justice. Issue-based organizing tackles specific issues, like getting clean drinking water for livestock workers, or, say, getting Brown University to divest from coal companies. Movement-based organizing creates a farflung base of support, beyond the community where the activism began, like when groups in Boston and New York showed their support for Smithfield workers.
Legerton—who said he learned about effective social action working for the United Farm Workers of America in the 1970s—said the community-based piece is often lacking in US activism. “The power of the community-based approach is that people identify more with each other than they do with an issue,” Legerton said. “And that’s a hard lesson for most social justice practitioners to learn, including labor unions.”
That lesson will be put to the test in the UFCW’s new campaign in Bladen county, where organizers will see if they can once again buck the anti-union current of the south. The local 1208 is trying to organize a Mountaire Farms chicken plant, where there are similar stories of abuse and unsafe working conditions. In March, the UFCW filed 22 complaints of unfair labor practices at the Mountaire plant with the NLRB.
Ludlum said the union is taking a “worker to worker” approach for the Mountaire campaign, even more so than in the Smithfield fight. Ella Ellerbe, a Smithfield worker and a union representative, said the fact that the union is already established in the community is making the Mountaire campaign easier.
“With Smithfield you got people from Washington, DC coming down, but with Mountaire it’s [from within] the community,” Ellerbe said. “If I knock on the door and you know me, isn’t that better than if it’s a stranger?”