Smithfield Workers Approve Union

By Venita Jenkins
Staff writer

TAR HEEL — Workers at Smithfield Packing Co. voted in favor of unionizing, a stunning victory for labor organizers who have waited 16 years to gain a presence in the world’s largest hog processing plant.

Nearly 4,000 employees cast secret ballots Wednesday and Thursday at the Tar Heel plant in Bladen County. The election results, announced late Thursday by a plant spokesman, seemingly put to rest an often contentious battle between the company and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.

According to the spokesman, 2,041 workers voted in favor of the union; 1,879 voted against it. The plant, which processes up to 32,000 hogs per day, has about 5,000 workers.

The union has tried to organize workers almost since the beginning, when the massive plant opened in 1992 amid sprawling tobacco fields 25 miles south of Fayetteville. Tonight’s victory marks a major inroad for organized labor in North Carolina. It almost certainly troubles other companies and economic developers in the Cape Fear region and beyond, as Smithfield Packing is one of the state’s largest industrial sites. Some have speculated that a union victory here could have a ripple effect at other plants at a tough time economically.

Workers tried twice in the 1990s to organize, at times attracting national attention.

Smithfield spokesman Dennis Pittman said the company respected the employees’ decision.

“We have had a great relationship with the unions that represent employees at eight of our other plants, and we look forward to having the same relationship with the union here at the Tar Heel facility,” he said.

The company plans to meet with the union over the next 30 to 60 days to begin contract negotiations. Both sides will determine what will be in the contracts, and will negotiate from there, Pittman said.

“Everything will come to the table during negotiations,” he said.

UFCW supporters were ecstatic. Mattie Fulcher of Lumberton yelled in the plant’s parking lot when the final tally was released. Fulcher, who works in the livestock section, was an observer of the count.

“We won. We voted fairly,” she said. “I cannot say that anyone cheated. This was one election that came out the way it was supposed to have come out. ... We are able to speak now. We will be treated fairly. A lot of people have not been treated fairly.”

Fulcher said she thinks the company will now listen to employees’ concerns. She would like the union to address the speed of production lines and health benefits.

“We have worked hard for this, and we did it and we can continue to do it,” she said, her voice cracking with emotion. “All I want is everybody to be together and not fight against each other. As long as we do that, we can make it.

A union official issued a statement saying he hopes a contract will benefit workers, the company and the community.

“When workers have a fair process, they choose a voice on the job,” said UFCW Director of Organizing Pat O’Neill.

The dialogue between both sides hasn’t always been so friendly. After the union was defeated in the 1990s, the voting results were challenged with allegations that management harassed and intimidated workers. In May 2006, a federal court ruled that Smithfield must stop anti-union tactics and allow a vote.

The process stalled, however, with disagreements over how the votes would be cast. Smithfield wanted secret ballots; the union favored a system in which workers sign cards.

In October 2007, parent company Smithfield Foods in Richmond, Va., filed a federal lawsuit accusing the UFCW of racketeering and extortion. Both sides reached a settlement two months ago agreeing to allow the National Labor Relations Board to carry out a secret-ballot election.

Neither side spoke publicly in advance of the election, per the agreement. But several workers said managers met with employees inside the plant Monday and showed a video presenting the company’s arguments against a union. Union representatives were allowed into the plant’s cafeterias Monday and Tuesday to present their case.

‘Coming together’

One worker, Reginald Parnell, was optimistic earlier Thursday. “It seems like everyone is coming together,” said Parnell, who said he voted for the union. “And today, after they count these votes, I hope we are victorious. We need that union in here.”

Parnell stood among a group union supporters outside a Hispanic grocery in the heart of Tar Heel. Parnell said he felt good about the vote.

An employee who voted against the union, who didn’t want to give her name, said she agreed with Parnell that the process this time has been non-confrontational.

Still, she said, “there is a sense of relief that it will finally be over.”

Fast track

Richard Hurd, a professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University and an expert on unions, said he expects negotiations for a contract will move fast since the vote was part of a court settlement.

“This situation is different because it’s under a court order,” Hurd said. “No one knows what the court order says, and typically after a vote there is a time both sides can appeal. That’s probably not likely in this case since a judge is already involved. ... I’d be surprised if it took longer than six months, and it will probably be much faster.”

Hurd said the outcome did not surprise him because the company had already showed an inclination toward neutrality by agreeing to the settlement. But, he said, the results were not automatic.

“Since there was such animosity in the past, it made it hard to predict. The company had opposed a union for so long,” he said.

He also said he doubted wages would decrease. That was a fear of Chuck Heustess, head of economic development in Bladen County. He said he was sorry to see the union vote pass and hopes wages and benefits remain at current levels.

“It’s not the result that I was hoping for,” he said. “I would not want to speculate (about wages), because I have no idea what the terms of the agreement are. Whether you wouldn’t start from scratch, I’ve not heard that. Being as good as they are for the community, and all the revenue that comes from that plant, you’d hope things would stay as good as they are.”

Heustess has said Tar Heel workers averaged $2 more per hour than Smithfield workers at unionized plants.

Hurd expects a beneficial outcome for Tar Heel employees.

“In most cases, all the terms and conditions of employment are open to negotiations,” Hurd said. “But in this case, since there was a settlement involved, that’s very unlikely. They won’t be starting from scratch, and I expect the overall economic package will be more favorable.”

Staff writer Venita Jenkins can be reached at jenkinsv@fayobserver.com or (910) 738-9158.
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