By Venita Jenkins
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
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
Dennis Pittman said the company respected the employees’
“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,
“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
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
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.
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
Parnell stood among a
group union supporters outside a Hispanic grocery in the
heart of Tar Heel. Parnell said he felt good about the
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.”
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
“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
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 email@example.com
or (910) 738-9158.