Meatpackers Rally in Washington, D.C., to Push for Unionization, Safety

Former meatpacker and current union member Edward Morrison says he tore his meniscus while straining to push racks of hogs at Smithfield Packing Co.'s Tar Heel, N.C., pork-processing plant. After some time off to recuperate from surgery, Morrison says he went back to work but claims he was fired 30 days later and never received workers' compensation.

Such alleged injustices prompted Morrison and other workers, union members and immigrant rights activists to converge on Washington, D.C., for a June 22 rally to promote a unionization campaign that proponents say will help make for safer working conditions at the Tar Heel plant.

"A union would really be helpful for us, as it would protect us from getting hurt and we would have a voice," Morrison told OccupationalHazards.com.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on May 5 ruled that Smithfield Packing Co. a subsidiary of multi-billion-dollar pork giant Smithfield Foods Inc. repeatedly violated the National Labor Relations Act by sabotaging the efforts of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCWU) Local 204 to organize at the Tar Heel plant. The appeals court, in its May 5 opinion, noted that Smithfield Packing threatened to fire employees who voted for the union, threatened to shut down the plant if employees unionized, videotaped and spied on employees' union activities and otherwise "was exceptionally hostile to union-organizing activities at the Tar Heel plant."

The appeals court decision upholds a broad cease-and-desist order issued by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) on Dec. 16, 2004. The NLRB cease-and-desist order forbids Smithfield Packing from further union-busting activities.

Smithfield Will Not Appeal

Smithfield Packing President and COO Joseph Luter IV said June 15 that the company will not appeal the circuit court's decision, although Luter added "we strongly disagree with the findings."

"We have argued strenuously that the allegations the union made concerning Smithfield's conduct during both elections were false," Luter said. "But we recognize that we have lost our case in court. When a new election is called, we will comply with the NLRB's remedies to assure a fair vote that represents the wishes of our plant's employees."

Luter also blasted UFCWU for launching a nationwide "anti-Smithfield" campaign that calls for a boycott on Smithfield products, among other measures.

"If the union's campaign succeeds, the people who will be hurt the most are the Smithfield employees that the union claims to want to help," Luter said.

Rally Participants Were Skeptical

Some participants in the Washington, D.C., rally which was one of several held nationwide on June 22 said they were skeptical of Smithfield Packing's vow to refrain from union-busting at the Tar Heel plant.

Former Tar Heel employee and current UFCWU member Ronnie Ann Simmons said workers there suffered from ergonomic injuries, dehydration from intense heat on the "kill floor," cuts from meat-slicing knives and slips and falls from walking surfaces slick with blood and guts.

"Today, we are fighting for all our co-workers black, white Indian, Hispanic, all the people who work at the plant so that we can work in dignity, have safe working condition and have a voice on the job," Simmons said.

Luter, however, has said that such allegations are hogwash.

"In fact, Smithfield plants meet the highest state and federal regulatory standards for worker safety and environmental responsibility," Luter asserted.

Smithfield Mentioned in Scathing Report

Smithfield was one of three companies mentioned in a 2005 report issued by Human Rights Watch charging that meat and poultry companies subject their workers to unnecessary hazards, block workers' attempts to obtain workers' compensation and suppress their rights to unionize. The report cited Smithfield Foods as an example of "aggressive and unlawful company efforts to derail workers' organizing efforts." (For more on the Human Rights Watch report, read "Human Rights Advocacy Group Issues Scathing Report on Workplace Conditions in Meat and Poultry Industry.")

After the federal appeals court decision on May 5, Luter echoed previous rebuttals made by Smithfield officials in pointing out that approximately 40 percent of Smithfield employees already are unionized.

"Smithfield supports employee choice, and the company welcomes an election that gives employees that choice," Luter said.

Luter also asserted that Smithfied has experienced "a downward trend in worker injuries in our facilities over the last few years" and that the company's "environmental performance today is unrivaled in the industry."

"Last spring Tar Heel concluded two international safety and health inspections and received excellent results," Luter said. "North Carolina's OSHA division completed a 2-month, wall-to-wall inspection of the facility. Its director praised our efforts to maintain a safe workplace. OSHA's district supervisor wrote: 'We commend you on maintaining your workplace in this manner and we appreciate your commitment to protecting the health and safety of your employees.'"

Luter directed anyone interested in information on Smithfield's employee safety initiatives to read the Smithfield Foods Corporate Social Responsibility Report for 2005, which is available on the parent company's Web site.

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