Using a Sledgehammer to Crack a Nut: Smithfield’s Union Busting History
Last October, the United Food and Commercial Workers Union was in the middle of negotiating an historic agreement with Smithfield Foods that could potentially have settled the fourteen-year standoff over union representation at the company’s Tar Heel, NC plant. Without warning, Smithfield abruptly called off talks, and two days later launched a massive, hundred-page racketeering lawsuit against the union and its allies, in effect equating the union with an organized crime syndicate.
The lawsuit was just the latest in a fourteen year series of jaw-droppingly brazen tactics Smithfield has taken to prevent a union presence in the world’s largest hog processing plant.
It all started back in 1994, when workers made their first attempt to hold a union election at the plant. Smithfield’s response was disproportionate and severe. So severe, in fact, that the National Labor Relations Board charged the company with harassment, illegal surveillance, intimidation, threats, and coercion of workers.
But that was nothing compared to the reaction when workers tried to hold elections a second time three years later, in August 1997. Court documents show that this time Smithfield unleashed dozens of bizarre tactics, everything from using the local sheriff’s department to harass union sympathizers to threatening to close the plant down altogether. In the weeks before the vote, company officials began illegally spying on workers, and a number of union supporters were fired to set an example to the rest. And on the day of the vote, things got even uglier.
The New York Times described the scene that day: “When workers arrived at the plant on the morning of the vote, they were met by Bladen County deputy sheriffs in riot gear.” As votes were counted, a fight broke out. While managers tried to blame it on union supporters, an NLRB administrative law judge ruled in December 2000 that the company used the law enforcement officers to instigate violence during the vote count.
Although this second election was eventually deemed invalid, an appeal from Smithfield tied it all up in court for years, pushing off any hope for new elections for another decade.
Smithfield’s tactics of bullying, brutalizing, disputing and delaying even earned the company a case study spot in two separate Human Rights Watch investigations in 2000 and 2005, and the Tar Heel plant has become a nationwide symbol of labor abuses and union busting. Yet even after fourteen years of retaliation, workers in Tar Heel refuse to back down.
Next: Tar Heel Workers Strike Back