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:




A Time of Renewal

About this time every year, when spring sparks life all around, humankind gets busy as well. We are found celebrating, remembering, crusading – and taking it to the streets, as was the case Saturday, April 29, in Washington, DC. The People’s Climate March brought 200,000 activists to swelter in global warming-style heat in the swamp, where they called out the deniers and demanded action. The march originated in New York City in 2014, but carried a particular urgency this year.


With the temperature at a record 91 degrees, 200,000 people marched in Washington on April 29. (Photo by Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Just last week we celebrated Earth Day, first observed in 1970, and thousands more filled the streets across the nation to “March for Science,” and specifically the science that helps us protect the planet that sustains us. Friday, April 28, was Arbor Day, celebrating trees, and these living reminders of our bond to the Earth. Through photosynthesis, the trees yield oxygen for us and absorb the carbon dioxide that otherwise would degrade our atmosphere, and threaten life.

We live in a Green House, and our life depends on it. We are reminded of its splendor each year at this time. The air is moist with the stuff of life. We breathe deep and find renewal in the rebirth of the Earth. We try to reach beyond the bonds that hold us to this fragile planet, as the Christians do with Easter, as the Jews do with Passover, as Muslim sufi mystics and early pagans did with rebirths like Ishtar, or the Egyptian Horas. The spring equinox has always been a time of spiritual, as well as physical, renewal.

Thus, it’s not surprising that the last Saturday in April is designated “World Tai Chi and Qigong Day,” also celebrated as “World Healing Day,” when people all over the world spend an hour or two in group energy transference, through Taoist meditation, internal martial arts, and therapeutic breathing exercises. There are natural hazards this time of year with these outdoor exercises, as deep breathing may be interrupted by an assault of pollen and a sneezing attack. But being mindful brings qi energy to absorb the pollen and restore inner balance.

Ah, spring. It is a season that inspired the now ritual “Take Your Daughters and Sons to Work Day,” the fourth Thursday of April, April 27 this year. The Ms Foundation for Women concocted the event – originally just for daughters – to empower girls to excel in their eventual workplaces. The first celebration was in 1993, and I remember how some feared that the labor movement’s embrace of the event would overshadow a seminal marker in labor’s history, Workers Memorial Day.


The AFL-CIO designated April 28 as Workers Memorial Day in 1972, when unions also were successfully pushing Congress and the Nixon Administration to create the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Each year since, the federation has demonstrated the need for new standards to protect workers on the job, even as each year the business lobby successfully fended off new standards and regulations to protect workers’ safety and health.

In the early 1990s, with support from Robert Reich and the Clinton Labor Department, we were close to gaining new standards for ergonomic safety – providing medical relief and workplace redesign to prevent injuries from repetitive motion – chronic problems for some factory workers, cashiers, office staff and others. Journalists are particularly vulnerable to carpal tunnel syndrome, a crippling condition caused by repetitive motion on keyboards. During the Bush administration, the business lobby blew away the ergonomics standard, and it is even more empowered under Trump.

Nothing matters to our government today more than the bottom line of corporations and rich investors – and particularly those connected to Trump Inc. That’s why the most important celebration, remembrance and crusade of this time of man – May Day – is so important this year. It is the historic symbol of resistance to corporate greed and economic injustice.

May Day, May 1, has been observed around the world as International Workers Day since 1889, commemorating protestors killed at Haymarket Square in Chicago on May 1, 1886, as they demonstrated for the eight-hour day. It was the beginning of a revolution in attitudes, legal precedent and government policies about how workers are treated vis-à-vis business organizations, and it sparked a wave of worker self-organization in the United States and around the world.

Now, with the resurgence of the corporate code of greed, we need this revolution more than ever. But our time of greatest need corresponds with the greatest decline in labor numbers and influence. There is a strong correlation between the two trends, and you can see how it has been manipulated through corporate campaigns that created right-wing think tanks (from Heritage to Cato), the so-called National Right to Work Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Commission and Astroturf groups like Americans for Prosperity.

Billions of dollars in corporate campaigns by the Koch brothers and others, empowered by the nefarious Citizens United ruling, have overwhelmed us with images and noise – and the greatest distraction of all, a hotel and casino magnate running the show, shaking us down. We face an enormous challenge to restore and renew our democracy against this corporate onslaught, but we can draw on the courage and convictions of those women and men who stood up and fought for the rights and protections we have today, and dare not give up.

So, let’s take heart in the people in the streets this year – from the Million Women to the People’s Climate marches. It’s spring, when a free people’s fancy turns to rising again. Happy May Day!


Labor Day Baby


In November I will have worked in the labor movement for 25 years, a silver moment for me. From editing the AFL-CIO News, assistant to the legendary Director of Information Rex Hardesty, to producing campaign material for leading labor PR agencies, and now helping to shape message and content for all media at one of America’s great unions, AFSCME, it’s been a great ride.

10476399_10152456896406136_8243057409235245219_nI’m a Labor Day baby, born the first of September – and this year that is indeed the holiday. Labor Day has always meant more than end of summer and back to school. It’s a time to honor workers, certainly, on a holiday conceived by unions. And it’s also time to get to work. And to think about how there ought to be more reward for the work we do, and more work, period. And about those culpable politicians we need to get rid of.

Yes, Election Day is just around the corner. What I like most about working for unions is that labor has the means – millions of members and effective political alliances – and the will to fight for economic justice, and that is the fight of our lives, in my view. It’s a fight because the enemies of economic justice, the wealthiest individuals and corporations, have unlimited resources and no compunction about wielding their wealth as a bludgeon. In their warped world, the strong survive and the weak are kicked to the curb.

The opponents of economic justice, led by billionaires Charles and David Koch, are devious and pushy, as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich illustrates in another of a series of important lectures on the economy. As Reich says, we have to stand up to the bullying tactics of the Kochs and demand a level playing field, economic justice for the other 99 percent:

Economic justice to me is captured in the spirit of Norma Rae, the iconic underprivileged, single-mother textile worker who rises above her station by demanding her rights at the mill. The scene with Norma Rae, played by Sally Field in an Oscar-winning performance, jumping on the table and holding up her handmade UNION sign as the bosses rush in to haul her away, gets me every time. You go, girl!

This Labor Day, I am reminded of a call I got back in 1992 from a Hollywood “producer,” a guy looking for an idea he could pitch. He called the editor of the AFL-CIO News to ask who in the labor movement might be the next Norma Rae. Where is that great story in modern-day America?

I’m not sure who the hero is, I said, but the great story in modern-day America is how all the good jobs are leaving America, shipped to other countries by greedy multinational corporations. And how politicians are in league with these corporations, passing so-called “free trade” deals that are making the situation worse.

I could almost feel the stifling of a yawn on the other end of the line. “I know it’s not sexy,” I said, “but it’s the big labor story in America today.” We had just been through a strenuous fight over NAFTA, and President Clinton had shoved it down our throats, twisting enough arms to overcome Democratic opposition. We were already hemorrhaging jobs. Parts of towns were being boarded up. People were suffering. Everyone was affected.

Of course, no one rose from the ruins of a shuttered manufacturing plant to demand change, to defend her job or call for the right to bargain. That’s true even today, and it’s gotten worse. Now corporations that can’t outsource jobs are moving their headquarters to other countries to avoid paying taxes – Burger King is running to Canada to be a tax dodger.

It is hard to find a modern-day hero in this milieu. Sure, there are great stories out there in the organizing trenches, workers standing up for their rights against vicious management tactics, but the wins are getting harder to come by, particularly in the private sector. The laws, and the lack of enforcement, allow employers to stifle organizing drives, retaliating against organizers and intimidating workers. If you don’t like it, well, your job could be performed in Juarez or Kuala Lumpur.

So, instead of labor heroes the movie mavens give us corporate anti-heroes, people like Gordon Gecko, who proclaimed, “Greed is good” in “Wall Street.” In the Hollywood movie today, the Great Gatsby is in and Tom Joad is out. It’s a sad commentary on Hollywood, but it’s all about making money, and labor just isn’t selling in the mass market nowadays.

We can appreciate Norma Rae for what she says and what she stands for, but no sense looking for the sequel. Better to find the spirit of these times in the stories, the poetry, the songs of our generations, not necessarily in film. The storytellers become the heroes, and I like that just fine. Listen to this modern-day poet conjure up the spirit of America, suffering in Youngstown:

That’s bleak, like many of the songs on “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a Bruce Springsteen masterpiece that elegantly tells the stories of struggle and hope in search of the American Dream. That dream is getting harder to find, but unions still provide a concrete path to success, despite the roadblocks being set up by the corporate class and their political lackeys.

For this Labor Day, let’s turn to a voice of hope and vitality – what happens in our cities when people come together and demand what’s right, confronting the rich and their political agents. That’s the power of unionism, and few tell it with such vibrancy as Tom Morello of the Nightwatchmen, formerly with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Wherever you are this Labor Day, make it a “Union Town.” Fight for what’s right: