Justice at Smithfield

When 5,000 slaughterhouse workers in Tar Heel, North Carolina, finally won the right to bargain over their wages and working conditions with Smithfield Foods, in December 2008, it was hailed as a great victory for the labor movement, which had stumbled and withered as the 20th century faded into history. It was indeed an important moment in the struggle for respect on the job, and it also illuminated the challenges workers still face to get justice at work. The 15-year organizing campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers showed how impotent U.S. labor laws are in reining in anti-union employers and their union-busting consultants, who would not be satisfied at Smithfield until a final sham assault on the union using federal racketeering laws did them in.

Book coverIt’s quite a story, told in great detail in Lynn Waltz’s new book, Hog Wild: The Battle for Workers’ Rights at the World’s Largest Slaughterhouse. Waltz, a former reporter at one of my old newspapers, The Virginian-Pilot, now teaching journalism at Hampton University, digs deep for the personal as well as the legal and political in flavoring her story. The result of her many interviews is a portrait of real people struggling not only to survive harsh economic conditions, but also a dangerous and hostile work environment. It features many of the heroes who led the fight, including veteran organizer Gene Bruskin, mastermind of the strategic campaign that eventually brought Smithfield to the table.

In her reporting, Waltz focused originally on Sherri Buffkin, a fast-rising “company woman” whose supervisory role included firing union supporters on trumped-up charges during the course of two union votes (1994 and 1998). All the while, she endured sexual harassment from the plant manager and eventually was fired herself on trumped-up charges. Buffkin was not a union supporter but she cooperated with National Labor Relations Board attorneys investigating the union’s charges of unfair labor practices, enduring a vicious assault on her character by Smithfield attorneys and neighborhood gossips.

Buffkin’s testimony was largely responsible for the decision by the NLRB judge that Smithfield was in “egregious and pervasive” violation of labor law, throwing out the two previous elections and ordering a new one, requiring that fired workers be rehired with back pay, and other penalties. The ruling, in December 2000, was quickly appealed by Smithfield, and other legal action followed, including a sexual harassment complaint by Buffkin that the company eventually settled out of court. Four years later, in December 2004, the NLRB upheld the ruling against Smithfield, which immediately appealed to a federal court. The legal battle continued to slowly crawl through the system over many years, frustrating Smithfield workers who came and went.

The transient nature of the workforce is a major part of the story, with plant supervisors purposefully fanning racial tensions between blacks, originally the majority of the workers, and Latinos, who eventually became the majority before Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, apparently coordinated with the company, led to deportations and community turmoil. Waltz keeps a sense of these communities running throughout the story, from the daily interactions of workers in the plant to the mass civil rights and worker rights rallies that underpinned labor’s eventual success.

gene bruskin justice

Gene Bruskin, the veteran labor organizer who directed the successful strategic campaign for the Food and Commercial Workers, displays a T-shirt with the campaign logo. (Photo by Lynn Waltz)

Mobilizing community and political support for the cause of the workers fell on Bruskin, then secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO’s Food and Allied Services Trade Department (FAST), who was loaned out to the UFCW to organize a comprehensive strategic campaign focusing on corporate misbehavior. The civil rights and religious communities rallied to call public attention to injustices at the plant, assisted by the national Jobs with Justice community activist network. The protesters also called out Smithfield customer Harris Teeter groceries and celebrity cook-promoter Paula Deen, embarrassing them with public displays while putting increased pressure on Smithfield.

The primary issue in the campaign – the abuse of workers in a hostile and dangerous workplace – inevitably became the clincher in the suit Smithfield filed against the union under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), a federal law designed to fight organized crime. Trying to prove the union maliciously sought to harm its business, Smithfield eventually realized it faced a long trial with lots of damning evidence about the way it treated its workers, as exposed in the NLRB hearings. The truth of the union’s claims during the campaign was its best defense.


Workers took their message to a Smithfield Foods shareholders meeting August 2007 in Williamsburg, Virginia, increasing pressure on the company to allow a fair election. (Photo by Sangjib Min/Daily Press, via AP/New York Times)

Also in play was a new political reality. The RICO trial was set to get underway just a week ahead of the presidential election, with favorite Barack Obama already pointing to the Smithfield case as reason why Congress should pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would allow unionization if a majority of workers signed cards asking for representation. As Bruskin is quoted in the book, “The handwriting was on the wall. Looking at a Democratic Congress and president viewing Smithfield as the paradigm of abuse was bad business.”

Unfortunately, the settlement of the RICO suit also included an order by the judge that neither Smithfield nor the UFCW defame the other, which meant that neither party would comment for Hog Wild, posing a reportorial challenge to Waltz. She succeeded with dogged reporting, gathering all the relevant NLRB records and key witness interviews, including the recollections of Bruskin, now retired but eager to talk about a significant victory for labor in the 21st century, young as it is.

“The story needs to be told,” Bruskin says in the book’s epilogue. “I feel like it’s important for people to know. When we have a victory, we need to talk about it, study it, and it needs to be part of us moving forward.” While Hog Wild serves as a primer on how the underdog can win against the big dog by bringing the whole community into the fight, it also exposes the ineffectiveness of current labor laws, which are little more than license for employers to bust unions. Maybe we need to bring the whole community into the labor law fight, dramatizing what workers are up against in the current system.

In reading Lynn Waltz’s book, I was reminded of a long-ago call I got from a Hollywood “producer” looking for the next “Norma Rae.” The story of the Smithfield workers, as told by Waltz, has many of those dramatic elements, and maybe it will find its way to the big screen someday. It already has inspired a dramatic documentary film, released last year, that captures the spirit of the Smithfield workers and their campaign. Union Time, directed by University of North Carolina-Greenville professor Matthew Barr for the Unheard Voices Project, is narrated by actor-activist Danny Glover. As you can see in this trailer, the voices of Smithfield workers come through loud and clear:




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