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June 19, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist

On the Killing Floor

SOMETIMES THE SPOTLIGHT works. Last week I wrote the first of what I thought would be a series of columns on the plight of workers at the mammoth Smithfield Packing Company plant in Tar Heel, N.C., the largest pork processing facility in the world.

Life inside the Smithfield plant can border on the otherworldly. To get a sense of what conditions are like on the killing floor, where 32,000 hogs are slaughtered each day, listen to the comments of a former Smithfield worker, Edward Morrison, whose job required him to flip 200- and 300-pound hog carcasses, hour after hour:

"Going to work on the kill floor was like walking into the pit of hell. They have these fire chambers, big fires going, and this fierce boiling water solution. That's all part of the process that the carcasses have to go through after they're killed. It's so hot in there. And it's dark and noisy, with the supervisors screaming, and that de-hair machine is so loud. Some people can't take it.

"I would go home at night and my body would be all locked up because I was dehydrated. All your fluids would just sweat out of you on your shift. I don't think the company cared. Their thing was just get that hog out the door by any means necessary."

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has been trying to organize the 5,500 workers at the plant for more than a dozen years. But the company has ferociously resisted. The union lost votes to organize the plant in 1994 and 1997, but the results of those elections were thrown out after the National Labor Relations Board and the courts determined that Smithfield had prevented the union from holding fair elections.

A vast majority of the workers at Smithfield are Latino or black. The union has circulated the comments of Ronnie Ann Simmons, who worked at Smithfield when the 1997 vote was held. "It was ugly," she said. "Supervisors yelling: 'Hit this nigger! Hit this nigger! They don't need to vote.' Police was everywhere."

The board and the courts determined that Smithfield had been guilty of myriad "egregious" violations of federal labor law. The company was ordered to cease its interference with the union's organizing effort and to reinstate workers that the courts found had been illegally fired because of their union activities.

Rather than obey the directives of the board and the courts, Smithfield has tied the matter up on appeals that have lasted for years.

Until now. Late last week the company blinked.

I first noticed that something was up when I was informed in an e-mail message from a Smithfield spokesman that the starting salary for workers had very recently (and very, very quietly) been raised from $8.10 an hour to $9.20 an hour.

Then on Thursday, the day the first installment in the planned series ran, Smithfield announced that it would end the appeal process that it had pushed so vigorously for so long. The company did not admit that it had done anything wrong. But its chief executive, Joseph Luter III, said in a prepared statement:

"When a new election is called, we will comply fully with the N.L.R.B.'s remedies to assure a fair vote that represents the wishes of our plant's employees."

He said: "Smithfield respects and accepts the court's judgment, even though we strongly disagree with the findings. ...We recognize that we have lost our case in court."

While union officials welcomed the pay raise and the decision to end the appeal process, they were extremely skeptical about the company's promise to comply fully with the orders of the courts and the N.L.R.B. A spokeswoman for the union said, "This company has a long history of abuse, exploitation and mendacity."

Gene Bruskin, the director of the union's organizing campaign, said he was worried that plans to move ahead with another election could be derailed yet again by illegal tactics from the company, and that yet another court fight and then a lengthy appeals process could stretch many years into the future.

"What we are fighting for," he said, "is for them to recognize that they've got to talk to the workers and the union and work out a process that doesn't involve intimidation and interference."

Smithfield traded harsh comments with the union ? saying, among other things, that the union's allegations about conditions in the Tar Heel plant were "untrue" ? but a spokesman insisted that the company would abide by the law, and stand by its word.

We'll see.

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