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Eric Wingerter

Cooking Up Trouble: Celebrity Chef Faces Worker Heat

Even in the face of brutal injuries and a massive 15-year union busting effort, employees at the world’s largest hog processing plant have refused to give up their fight. This year, they are looking to recruit some high-profile help.

It’s been 18 months since Smithfield Foods brought on celebrity chef and Food Network star Paula Deen as their corporate spokeswoman. That’s Paula’s face you see on the side of Smithfield’s spiral sliced hams in your local supermarket, and nowadays you can spot her hawking Smithfield products on television and in public appearances around the country.

Deen’s love of all things lardy, along with her southern-fried charisma, makes her a natural fit as big pusher of big pork. But Smithfield workers believe that her personal story also lends itself to empathy with their struggle. Once a small time southern cook, Deen built an enormous—if cholesterol-laden—empire after defeating a debilitating mental disorder. The workers in Tar Heel believe that given the chance to hear their stories, she might just become a champion for the rights of workers at Smithfield, sort of a Kathy Lee Gifford of slaughterhouse labor. Unfortunately, it appears that Deen’s Smithfield handlers won’t let them get close enough to ask.

Last April, an injured Smithfield worker was escorted out of a Paula Deen event in Washington DC when she attempted to deliver this letter from plant workers. Since then, workers and their allies have been bird-dogging Paula at her public appearances, unfurling banners, singing silly songs--anything to get her attention. But to no avail.

So in August, when CNN host Larry King actually offered to host a meeting with Smithfield workers, and Paula agreed to do it live on his show, plant workers thought they were finally making progress, but so far her handlers have steadfastly refused to follow up.

Those handlers are giving her some truly terrible talking points, too. Check out this bizarre interview on her hometown television station, where she scolds Tar Heel workers for complaining (“It’s called work for a reason,” she says, “It’s not called play.”) and even argues that she’s been injured on the job herself. Yikes. Somebody needs to explain to Paula that splattered grease and severed fingers are somewhat different categories of work-related injuries.

But the workers remain optimistic. They blame Paula’s verbal faux pas on the folks who surround her. As one injured worker told the Savannah Morning News, “I can’t believe a woman with her values would support a company that is doing so much to cause suffering to our families. She must not know the truth.”

They’re not going to give up, and they haven’t lost their sense of humor either. The video below has been making the rounds on You Tube lately. You can sing along at home.

Eric Wingerter is the Online Coordinator for the Justice@Smithfield campaign, a national project of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW).

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Posted at 6:58 AM, Mar 04, 2008 in Labor
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