Oxfam builds support for human rights at meat processing plant

By Oxfam America
Workers from the Smithfield Foods plant participated in a day of action to draw attention to the conditions in the plant. Oxfam America has funded a community organizer to help workers bring in a union.

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Melvin Grady's experiences at the Smithfield Foods plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina, say a lot about why many of the workers at the largest hog processing facility in the world would risk their jobs to bring in a union.

And he's just one reason why Oxfam America recently gave the United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW) a $25,000 grant to hire a community organizer to help make that happen. There are about 5,500 other reasons, too—one for every single employee at the sprawling plant in Bladen County where 32,000 hogs a day are slaughtered and processed.

"In the past 20 years, the meat packing industry has turned from a decent-paying industry with benefits to a dangerous, low-paying one where workers move at almost impossible speeds and injuries are frighteningly frequent," said Guadalupe Gamboa, an Oxfam America program officer who focuses on workers' rights. "The conditions in these plants—Smithfield included—clearly violate the basic human rights of their workers."

Gene Bruskin, a UFCW campaign director who has been helping workers organize at the Smithfield plant, put it in even blunter terms: "You're literally chewed up and spit out."

But in Bladen County, where more than 19 percent of the residents live in poverty and unemployment rates hit nearly 10 percent in 2002, people have been hungry for work, and take jobs at Smithfield, despite the grueling conditions.

Dispatching hogs at blinding speed

"If you're working in that plant, you're killing 1,000 pigs an hour on two lines. That's 16,000 in eight hours," Bruskin said. "If I'm working on the line, I'm doing 1,000 of whatever I do every hour. If I'm the one who stabs the pig in the throat and kills it, or I pull the brains out, I do it 1,000 times an hour. It's one every three to four seconds, so it's extremely dangerous. People work at blinding speeds with very little training."

Part of the problem, said Gamboa, is an absence of regulations that would help protect workers.

"There is no law in the US that governs the speed at which a hog processing plant can run its killing and cutting lines and that's why companies are allowed to get away with horrible conditions," he said. "International human rights laws are broader than US law. We have an obligation to meet that higher standard."

Twice, workers at the plant have tried to unionize to improve their working conditions—once in 1994 and again in 1997 when they lost the election by a small margin amid union-busting activities, including threats, intimidation, and violence against workers. In 2000, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge found Smithfield liable for those actions and ruled the election invalid. In 2006 a federal appeals court upheld that decision.

"Rather than subjecting themselves to the ordeal of another election, the workers are asking the company to recognize their union by an alternative procedure under the NLRB—one in which workers can choose a union by having a majority sign union cards.  Smithfield has refused this alternative procedure," said Gamboa.

And there it stands. With no union and no protection, employees like Melvin Grady face a mountain of challenges.

One man's story

Grady's hardships are detailed in a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released last year called "Blood, Sweat, and Fear: Workers' Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants." Grady started work at Smithfield on the kill floor where he spent 18 months before moving onto a job sharpening knives. One day, returning to his station after a meal break, he slipped on the greasy floor and tumbled to the bottom of some steps where he heard a pop. It was his Achilles tendon, severely torn and requiring surgery and convalescence.

Grady's nightmare had begun.

In the end, said the HRW report, Smithfield told him he wasn't eligible for workmen's compensation and fired him when he couldn't get clearance from his doctor for unrestricted work. The final blow came a few months after the accident when the bank foreclosed on Grady's house: The temporary jobs he was able to pick up for $6 an hour couldn't match the $11-an-hour-plus-overtime he had earned at Smithfield. His income had plummeted by more than half.

Workers walk out

Grady's fate could have been the fate of any Smithfield worker. But the tide may be getting ready to turn, if a recent two-day walkout by hundreds of workers is any indication of what the future holds.

In November, the workers—Hispanics and blacks alike—decided to walk off the job to protest the firing of dozens of immigrant employees whose documentation the company questioned.

The step took great courage, said Bruskin.

"It was historic," he said, "for immigrant workers with all they have to risk to walk out of the plant like this—a company of this size."

But as important, the walkout could also be signaling a shift in race relations among workers at the plant—a critical step in building momentum for their collective rights.

"Smithfield has a long history of using race to divide the workers," said Leila McDowell, the communications coordinator for UFCW's "Justice at Smithfield" campaign. "They would tell African-Americans, 'if you stand up for a union we'll replace you with Latino workers.' And they tell Latino workers, 'blacks are getting more than you.' The union organization has been working to overcome that."

And the show of solidarity during the walkout was proof.

"It was very important for immigrant workers to see the African-American workers support them," said Bruskin. "It was also a tremendous opportunity for them to see the power they have."

In the end, following thousands of phone calls from religious organizations, civil rights groups, and immigrants rights agencies urging the company to respect the rights of its workers, Smithfield agreed to hire back the ones it had let go and not to discipline those who had participated in the walkout. Additionally the company agreed to allow employees time to respond to questions about their documentation.

Next steps

While workers savor that bit of victory, the organizer the UFCW has hired with Oxfam's grant will begin to focus on African-American communities in the area, particularly churches and civil rights groups.

"This outreach will provide crucial community support for workers seeking to organize against a notoriously anti-union and anti-worker employer with a long history of violations of the legal and human rights of these workers," said Gamboa. "About 40 percent of the workers at Smithfield are African-American, and the majority of the others are Latino.

"The Justice at Smithfield campaign has close community and religious ties with the Latino population already. Building strong ties with the African-American community will help the campaign build the alliances between the two groups as well as support the workers in their struggle to protect their human rights through a union contract."